Tuesday, November 29, 2011

J.P. Holding, Unconditional Election, Middle Knowledge (Part II)

Abridged Exegesis in Romans 9

Holding contends that Romans 9 should best be understood in terms of the rubric of primary causality. Holding then tells us that we should not expect to find the answer to the objection that he is reading into the text something that is not there. He then explains this away with an obscure reference to Paul’s high-context Hebrew mind versus our low-context western mind. Holding then contends that the Hebrew would have no interest in issues of free will and predestination. I wonder how Holding reconciles this with the fact that Paul was a Roman citizen writing to a Roman church that had a predominantly Gentile composition with a Jewish minority. Yes, Paul was treating an issue that was closely related to Hebrew thought, but he was doing so in a predominantly non-Jewish culture. Holding then parades out something he calls “block logic.” First of all, Wilson (Holdings source for this block logic) is an ecumenist and a staunch anti-Calvinist. Therefore, it is clear that he comes to this subject with a specific axe to grind. He wants to flatten the distinction between the church and the synagogue on the one hand, and take a swipe at Calvinistic theology on the other. I am amused at how quickly Holding is ready to dispense with logic where it suits his purpose and to use it in other cases where it equally suits his purpose. This is consistent incoherence at least. He does the same sort of thing in hermeneutics. If one examines Wilson’s supposed evidence from Scripture in support of his “block logic” thesis, they find a radically contorted interpretations of the biblical text. It follows that if Wilson’s theory around “block logic” fails, then Holdings argument again falls short.

To demonstrate Wilson’s fallacious understanding of Hebrew block logic, we will look at a minimum number of examples. These are texts that Wilson’s claims are paradoxical in nature. The question is are they really paradoxical or are they something else?

1. The book of Exodus where Pharaoh hardens his heart and God also hardens Pharaohs heart. Wilson would contend these two units of thought are both true but appear to contradict one another. Therefore he concludes the Hebrew thought process would not be so ready to worry about such apparent contradictions due to how the Hebrew mind thought. However, this simply does not hold. There are two perspectives here: God’s perspective and man’s perspective. We see Pharaoh hardening his heart in fulfillment of God hardening His heart. Moses was told clearly that God would harden Pharaoh’s heart.

2. The prophets teach that God is wrathful and merciful. This is a fascinating assertion. How is this a paradox? God can be wrathful and merciful. He can even pour out wrath while showing mercy at the same time. David is a perfect example. He could have killed David, Bethsheba, and the baby. He did not. He executed wrath, tempered with mercy.

3. Wilson considers Jesus’ description as Lion and Lamb as a paradox. This is only true if one insists on a silly wooden interpretation of clearly metaphorical language.

Mr. Wilson is a gentile attempting to get into the Jewish mind. He does not bring some internal insight that any other gentile might be lacking. There are a number of examples like the ones above, some of them more absurd, some not as absurd. Clearly, Hebrew block logic is in no way a satisfactory answer to what is taking place in Romans 9. There are no apparent contradictions in Romans 9. The apparent contradiction only exists if you concede the Pelagian idea that ‘ought’ requires ability. We reject such Pelagian nonsense. That issue has been thoroughly treated repeatedly and Holding has the burden of demonstrating why we should side with Pelagius against Augustine on the matter.

We begin our shortened exegesis at Romans 9:9 with the epexegetical preposition “for.” The concern has to do with the question of failure as it regards God’s promise. Any question regarding the failure or not of God’s promise is a question concerning God’s sovereignty. Paul clarifies the promise of God in v. 9. He indelibly ties the promise to Sarah with the promise to Rebekah who conceived Jacob and Esau. Paul attaches again the epexegetical “for” in v. 11 as he gives the basis for his selection of the individuals to begin with. “For though the twins were not yet born and had done anything good or bad” hearkens back to v. 8. The children of the flesh bring to mind Ishmael. There was nothing in Abraham that God should have chosen him. There is nothing in Isaac that God should have chosen him. The whole point is that it was not the child, or anything about the child, but the promise and everything about the promise. Israel had a very rich heritage, having been God’s chosen people. The temptation to boast and think that there was something about the nation would naturally have been great. Paul spends considerable time pointing out that it was the promise. Moreover, it wasn’t just a promise, but it was a specific promise of a sovereign God that helps us understand the present circumstances in which we find ourselves. This is exactly where Paul brings us back to in v. 11. It was not the children of flesh, it isn’t Abraham, it isn’t Isaac. Moreover it isn’t Jacob or Esau which is why Paul goes out of his way to say the twins were born of one seed. There was no material difference in these boys. Moreover, there was nothing in their character or actions because they had not even been born when God chose.

What was it then? Why Jacob and not Esau? At a minimum, we see Paul going to great detail to trace his argument and even anticipate potential responses from reason. The purpose clause “so that God’s purpose according to His plan would stand” would ordinarily follow the clause it modifies. If we reconstruct the statements, it makes for smoother reading: for though the twins were not yet born and had not done good or bad, it was said to her, The older will serve the younger so that God’s purpose according to His choice would stand, not because of works but because of Him who calls. Just as it is written, Jacob have I loved but Esau have I hated. We simply moved the sentence that the hina clause modifies in front of the hina clause which helps give the text a smoother reading in English. The focal point is not man, it is not Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Esau. The focal point is God’s choice. It is God’s promise. It is God’s sovereignty.

V. 14 then provides us with a very logical and easily anticipated objection to Paul’s argument. The Greek, “What then shall we say?” “No unrighteousness with God?” If you can read Paul’s argument and feel this very tension, you have read Paul rightly! Good job. You are on the right track. How does Paul answer this question of fairness? He gives the strongest Greek negation possible! Me Genoito! Absolutely not! Unthinkable, unimaginable is Paul’s response. One would expect Paul to explain why not! And he proceeds to do exactly this! He does not let the tension stand. Perhaps for the Pelagian and Arminian he allows the tension to stand. But for those who are not afraid to accept the truth of Romans 9, Paul explains how this works. “For” he says to Moses! Another explanatory preposition! Again, there is nothing generic about Paul’s argument. He is going to great lengths to explain his position and help the church understand how sovereignty, election, and responsibility work. The answer is that it is entirely God’s prerogative to have mercy on whom he wills to have mercy. God selects Jacob for reasons known only to Himself. The objection is made! God answers by saying election, mercy, grace, whatever the case may be, is my prerogative. I will extend it to whomever I desire. Even in the face of the client-patron relationship, God introduces a new concept. Mercy is something I will extend by my own sovereign choice. The Greek “hara” is a logical inference conjunction. This is a resultant clause inferred from Paul’s answer. The NAS translates it “so then.” It means, consequently then, or as a result of this then…” It does not depend on the man, but rather on God. It does not depend on willing men nor on acting men or men’s actions or wills, but rather on God who chooses to exercise His freedom to chose and elect so that his choice according to his purpose might stand. We return to this idea again and again. It is not Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob, but it is God. It is the sovereign God behind a specific promise.

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, for this reason I have raised you up. Initially, Paul talks about the promise. He moves to God’s choice of Jacob and His rejection of Esau. He defends God’s choice. And now he demonstrates from history an example of God’s freedom to choose men for glory and men to dishonor. Again, it is difficult to miss the fact that Paul is spending a great deal of time on the details of God’s sovereign choice according to His divine plan. The phrase eis auto touto is used five times in the Greek text of the NT. This is a very emphatic phrase pointing out that it was this very purpose that God had raised up Pharaoh. We then have another preposition of logical inference. Paul draws the logical conclusion, based on the Scriptural evidence that God has mercy on whomever He desires and whom He desires, He hardens.

Well, if it is true that God raised men up for this purpose, and he chooses men before they are even born, how is it that He is justified in finding fault with their actions since He ordained them in the first place? In other words, if God determines things in this manner, how can Pharaoh be culpable? How can God raise Pharaoh up to show His glory in him in this way and then still judge Pharaoh for doing what God raised him up to do? If you are wondering about this, you are not alone! However, pay very close attention because Paul is about to answer this reasoning and even tell you if such reasoning is in accord with Christian ethics. God’s norms not only govern how we live, and speak, they govern how we think. According to Paul, not only is such thinking wrong, it is out of accord with God’s standards for Christian thinking. In other words, thinking along these lines is off limits to believers. I realize that opponents like Holding will recoil over this response and contend that it is little more than naïve, uncritical nonsense from a stupid fundamentalist. Perhaps he wouldn’t say as much openly, but he will certainly do so behind the curtains of Theology Web. So, what do I mean that God forbids this kind of reasoning?

Paul’s response to this line of thinking is a bold one. He basically says, enough! Paul says, on the contrary, who are you to answer back to God? Paul then compares such a riposte to the foolish idea of a pot complaining to its molder about how it was molded! In other words, Paul is saying you are foolish to raise such an accusation against God. After all, Paul had already provided an emphatic answer to the question of unrighteousness with God. One gets the sense that Paul’s patience is wearing thin in this hypothetical argument. Paul is actually rebuking anyone and everyone who dares to say that the fact of God’s hardening Pharaoh and choosing to have mercy on whomever He pleases and to harden whomever He pleases is unfair! Such thinking must be put far away from the believer. The Greek word in v. 20 is ἀνταποκρινόμενος and it means to express disapproval in return, to criticize. The only other time it is used is in Luke 14:6 in a challenge-riposte between Christ and the Pharisees. This is precisely what Paul warns against. In other words, Paul is cautioning the Roman Christians that challenge-riposte with God is forbidden. In modern vernacular, we would say that it is forbidden to debate with the Divine. Paul has given us the answer to this question and that is as far as we can take it. I realize this offends the modern quest to subject every proposition to critical human reasoning and demand harmony within our dearly held basic beliefs. If this answer violates or offends your basic beliefs, perhaps it is time for you to reconsider the truthfulness of them. Calvin often warns against the wicked pride of philosophical speculation. I leave you with one of his many warnings:

Still, however it will be our principal study to provide a sure footing for those whose ears are open to the word of God. Here, if any where, in considering the hidden mysteries of Scripture, we should speculate soberly and with great moderation, cautiously guarding against allowing either our mind or our tongue to go a step beyond the confines of God’s word. For how can the human minds which has not yet been able to ascertain of what the body of the sun consists, though it is daily presented to the eye, bring down the boundless essence of God to its little measure? Nay, how can it, under its own guidance, penetrate to a knowledge of the substance of God while unable to understand its own? Wherefore, let us willingly leave to God the knowledge of himself. In the words of Hilary (De Trinit. lib. 1), “He alone is a fit witness to himself who is known only by himself.” This knowledge, then, if we would leave to God, we must conceive of him as he has made himself known, and in our inquiries make application to no other quarter than his word. [Institutes, 1.13.21]

Sunday, November 27, 2011

JP Holding, Unconditional Election, and Middle Knowledge

As I return to JP Holding’s views on Calvinism, I think it better to select those very foundational beliefs of Holding, that, if proven false, accomplish my primary purpose: defending the biblical truth of Calvinism. In this post, I will defend unconditional election against Holding’s assault. According to Holding, unconditional election is the most controversial of all the points. Moreover, he thinks that people have more of a problem with the idea of election itself than they do the unconditional piece. In response to these two statements, I would contend that Holding is wrong. Most people consider “limited atonement” to be the most controversial point in Calvinistic theology. Secondly, it is not election that people find offensive, but rather the fact that the basis of election is wholly and entirely located in God, and not some outward work or decision or foreknowledge of some work or decision man makes.

Holding leans on middle knowledge coupled with a method of exegesis known as “Hebrew block logic” to contradict the reformed teaching of unconditional election in Romans 9. I address middle knowledge in this post in response to Holding and then I provide an exegetical treatment of Romans 9 in a second post in asnwer to Holding's contention that unconditional election is an unbiblical doctrine.

Middle Knowledge a.k.a. Molinism

Space prohibits a full treatment of the concept of middle knowledge. Therefore, I will be as brief as possible in my response to Holding’s use of middle knowledge. In the traditional view, God’s knowledge is seen as necessary or natural in one sense and free in another sense. God’s knowledge of counterfactuals for example would fall into the category of necessary knowledge while His knowledge of actual events is free. Under Pelagian thinking, God’s knowledge, or better yet, His omniscience seemed to pose real problems for libertarian freedom. Therefore, the Jesuits came up with the concept of middle knowledge. Actually, it has its roots in Origen and Pelagius. This is knowledge somewhere between God’s necessary knowledge and His free knowledge. The idea was to create a system in which God could know the future acts of libertarian free creatures. This media scientia means a divine knowledge of contingent events that is logically antecedent to God’s decrees. The object of this knowledge is the possibilities that depend for their realization on one condition or another. At bottom, God’s future actions are determined by the decisions of creatures in certain conditions. God knows what He will do should the creature freely do X as opposed to Y. If the creature does X, God will do A but if the creature does Y, God knows He will do B. If the creature decides for Christ, God will elect Her to salvation. But if the creature rejects the gospel God leaves her for reprobation. If Jacob does A, God knows He will love and choose Jacob and hate Esau. Perhaps it is better stated that if Jacob does A and Esau does B, then God knows He will choose Jacob, not Esau because He knows if He chooses Esau under these conditions, God’s desired world would not be obtained. Moreover, God’s knowledge of these contingent events is prior to His decree concerning the absolutely free events.

Now, as an example of this media scientia, Holding points to a hypothetical example of conditions around Jacob’s election resulting in 178 million saved versus Esau’s election resulting in 155 million being saved. Holding then says, Is there unrighteousness with God? Hardly. "Why not choose me?" -- Esau. At the very least it may be said in reply, "Because look what happens if you do." Although he may not see it, and perhaps he would not admit to it, Holding’s unavoidable conclusion is that the basis for God’s election of Jacob really rests in Jacob. Jacob’s free actions were superior to Esau’s because they produced a “better” possible world, one that God found more attractive. Holding’s burden is to demonstrate that his thesis is congruent with an exegesis of Romans and the rest of Scripture. Second, Holding has to demonstrate that this is coherent with the idea of free will. As one will see, middle knowledge does nothing to support the notion of free will as defined by Pelagianism, nor does this theory support a straightforward exegesis of Romans 9. In fact, Romans 9 directly contradicts the notion of middle knowledge by locating God’s basis for election outside the creature in every way.

The first problem for middle knowledge is that it fails entirely in its attempt to harmonize free will with divine foreknowledge. Free will is “will” that is free from any and all external causes. In other words, free will means that its acts are purely arbitrary. There is no causal relationship between the will and anything else. This would make predictability impossible even for God. There is no basis upon which to test the “what if.” This is like an algorithm whose inputs change with every trial. No intelligible pattern is possible. This view of the will of course is in contradistinction to the Augustinian/Calvinist view that the will carries out the greatest desire of the creature. As Bavinck says, “The Reformed reject the theory of a “bare foreknowledge” (nuda praescientia) and “middle knowledge” (media scientia). [Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics, Vol 2, 200] A will such as this can never be harmonized with the decree of God. There is no mediating position. The only other possibility is that God has to watch to see what the autonomous will does, and then react accordingly. Now to be fair, the adherents of middle knowledge would say that God always knows what all the possible contingencies are and what he would do if any of them obtained. What God cannot know in this system is what the free creature will actually decide, due to the nature of freedom he possesses. It becomes obvious that omniscience is drifting into open theism and process theology in this arrangement.

This is the case with middle knowledge. The doctrine of middle knowledge, however, represents contingent events as contingent and free also in relation to God. [Bavinck, 201] This is similar to Origen’s view of foreknowledge. Things do not happen because God foreknows them. God foreknows them because they are going to happen. In middle knowledge, God does not derive his knowledge of the free actions of human beings from His own being, His own decrees, but from the will of creatures. [Bavinck, 201] In this system, grace is dispensed according to merit; predestination depends on good works. [Bavinck, 201] Holding says as much in his own words when he says that God did not choose you, Esau, because, “look what happens if I do!”

If an event is only a possibility and will never be realized, it belongs to God’s necessary knowledge. If an event will one day be realized, then it belongs to God’s free knowledge. There is nothing in between. There is what will not be realized, that which is only possible, and there is that which will be realized. There is no middle ground between these two. If a contingent is never realized, then it is only possible. If a contingent is realized, then it is actual. The former belongs to necessary knowledge and the latter to free knowledge. Hence, unavoidably, middle knowledge collapses.

Free will, in reformed theology does not consist in indifference, arbitrariness, or change. Rather it consists in rational delight. [Bavinck, 202] As Dr. Edwards put it, “The determination of the Will, supposes an effect, which must have a cause.” If Holding agrees with Edwards, well then, we have little in dispute. Such a view would be compatibilist freedom and with this Calvinism would have no problem. But Holding seems to be a man of many conveniences. He adopts a convenience of hermeneutics when it suits his purpose, and a philosophy of convenience to compliment it when he feels like it.

In order for middle knowledge to harmonize free will with foreknowledge, it must show how the will can be entirely free and predictable at the same time. The open theists and process theologians have already given up on this idea long ago. For them, free will was more important than preserving sovereignty and so they sided with the creature over against the Creator.


Middle knowledge was an attempt on the part of the Jesuits to harmonize the Pelagian concept of free will with omniscience. Middle knowledge fails for two basic reasons: (1) Possibilities also referred to as counterfactuals, belong to God’s necessary knowledge. Actual events belong to God’s free knowledge. The last time I checked, there are only two kinds of events: possible and actual. Middle knowledge has no basis for its existence. What else is there to know? (2) Pelagian freedom is indeterminate freedom. The will is an island unto itself. Essentially, libertarian freedom is uncaused. That is what “free” means in this scheme and it is this freedom that middle knowledge attempts to harmonize with omniscience. However, one could never predict or know what a free creature such as this would do because of the indeterminate nature of its will. Hence, it follows that middle knowledge fails to harmonize freedom and omniscience. If what is desired is a harmonization of compatibilist freedom with omniscience, well, just about any Calvinist theologian can help you with that. That work was done long ago.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How Do You Know that You Know God

I was listening to some recent stats on the percentage of people in America who claim to be Christian. The number was staggering. 82% of Americans claim to be Christian! I must say, that is astounding. Perhaps Jesus was prophesying about America in Matt. 7:21 when He said, "Not everyone that says to Me, Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven." Really America? Over 8 out of 10 people claim to be Christian. Yet, at the same time we have more sexual promiscuity, more corruption, more materialism, more hedonism, more homosexuality, more divorce, lower views of Scripture, lower views of sin, lower views of hell, and higher views of ourselves than at any point in our history. In addition to this, we are killing unborn babies at an alarming rate, all the while saying we love Jesus! Homosexuals are bent on destroying the institution of marriage, not to mention the church and religious freedom along with it and we cower in fear and go along with it as if God were asleep. We marry people of the same sex, ordain people who have made the homosexual choice, and allow them to become members in the church. Yet, all these people claim to know God. They claim they have a viable relationship with the eternal Son of the living God, Jesus Christ. Does a claim to be something make it so? Are there norms that transcend mankind to which we can look that will help us know when a claim to knowledge is true or false? Do we have an obligation to confront these issues or does God allow us to bury our head in the sand? Can we do as we please?

If it is true that many people will falsely claim to know Christ, does the church bear any responsibility to identify them? Jesus Himself said many people will come to Him at the judgment and claim to have known Him and they will even point to their works as evidence of that knowledge. Yet, despite the existence of works, Jesus will soundly reject their claim to knowledge of Him as patently false. They will be ushered into certain judgment and condemnation. Do you know Jesus? How do you know that you know Jesus? Is your knowledge based on what your parents told you when you were a child? Have you listened to some pastor who doesn't even know the gospel convince you that all you have to do is say a prayer and go to church and this is how you know and love God? This is not the gospel! It is a lie from the very dungeon of Hades! It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Heb. 10:31) God will not be mocked! God is not the tender old grandpa in heaven whose eyes you can pull the wool over. He knows the wickedness that lies in the center of our heart. No, He does not sympathize with our wicked disobedience! He commands you to repent of it. He does not "understand" you, that you are more attracted to the same sex than the opposite sex and therefore He "feels" your conflict. He demands you submit to His will now, today, immediately, or suffer His wrath. You are already under His divine wrath as you walk in your sin and rebellion every day. We convince ourselves that God is like us! He understands our wicked rebellion as mere imperfections! Sin is no longer a wicked vice that we freely choose to endulge. It is an accident. It is a mistake, kind of like misspelling a word. Opps, I got it wrong. God understands. Such a frippery view of sin is indeed sinful itself. Do we really know God? How can we know that we know God? It isn't by some internal witness alone! Nor is it by some emotion floating around in our hearts and minds. Some people think they know God because they have a moral standard and hate it when particulars of those standards are violated. Others think they know God because they punish themselves for their own sin as if that could ever win them favor with God. They think God sees how much they hate themselves for sinning by the punishment they inflict upon themselves and therefore God knows they must love Him. Such thinking is veiled self-righteousness.

Jesus said that those who "do the will of my Father in heaven" will enter heaven. The one who knows God loves God. And he who loves God keeps His commandments. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments." (John 14:15) But we don't do this! We want to embrace abortion and love Jesus even though He forbids it and in most cases the activity that created the problem to begin with, unlawful sexual intercourse. We embrace homosexuality and claim to love Jesus. We embrace divorce right along with the rest of the culture and claim to love Jesus! I heard about one woman who was going to leave her husband without biblical cause and the church initially was able to convince her otherwise. A year later, she left him anyhow. In leaving him she said, "Last year I was bibled out of it. That isn't happening this time." In other words, her church used God's word to keep the marriage in tact. But now, the Bible isn't enough to get her to honor her covenant of marriage. And she claims to "love" Jesus. Jesus said not so! Jesus thinks such people are wicked hypocrites when they call Him Lord and do not do what He commands! (Luke 6:46) Jesus says those that are in covenant relationship with Him as Lord do as He commands. It has nothing whatever to do with human emotion. People reading this post from other cultures may find my remarks somewhat confusing. In western culture, especially in America, Christians think they love God because they have warm and soft emotions about Him. That is their measure of whether or not they love God. How they live is completely incidental to their love for God. But this is not the biblical picture at all.

The text that teaches us how we can know if we have come to know God most clearly, in my opinion is 1 John 2:3-4, "By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, I have come to know Him, and does not keep His commandments is a liar and the truth is not in Him." It really is that simple. Anyone who says they know God while living a life that exemplifies commandment breaking is a liar. The homosexual who says I love God and practices the homosexual lifestyle is a liar. The person who says they love God all the while living with someone or practicing an on-going life of sexual immorality is a liar. The one who says He loves God and refuses to repent of His lying, stealing, adultery, drunkeness, etc. is a liar. I am not saying Christians never fall into these sins! I am also not saying that we should kick those who do in the head. If that were true, we would all require a swift kick in the head. If two people are dating and having trouble abstaining from sexual relations, Scripture has a clear answer for them: repent by getting married. Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:9 that if two people cannot control themselves in that situation, they should marry. But there are Christians who do not struggle with this at all. They have sex regularly, just like a married couple would, and think nothing of it. That struggle does not at all cause them to move to marriage in genuine repentance of such behavior. They think God understands this behavior. After all, they love one another. And these people think they love Jesus! There is a difference between Christians who struggle with sin and Christians who simply excuse it. Sex is a very powerful urge that is not easy to control. It can get out of hand before you realize it. Marriage is the only biblical answer for such a situation. On the other hand, there are sins that have no passionate component whatever. The sin of divorce is one such sin. Christian husbands and wives claim to love Christ and claim to understand the covenantal nature of marriage engage in divorce for ungodly reasons all the time. They make conscious decisions to reject the covenant, to reject the clear teachings of Scripture and in some instances, they reject the admonition and discipline of their church, preferring to follow their own desires as opposed to desiring what is right in the sight of God. They do this all the while claiming to love and know God. They do not! If they love God, they would repent of such sin and reconcile with the spouse God covenanted them to have. What is regrettable in many of those circumstances is that most churches do nothing to help these people avoid this sin. In fact, in some cases, the friends (Christian in word only) of these people support their wicked actions of sin and rebellion. In additon, the pastors and elders do very little. What can be said about friends who support illicit divorce all the while claiming to love and know Jesus? What can be said about a church that sits by and does very little to intervene? All the while claiming to be a church of Jesus? What can be said about a pastor and elders who witness such atrocities in the Christian community? All the while claiming to be called by God to promote and defend His Word! If a pastor can't lose a few congregants over the truth, how are we to believe He would die for the truth? All the while claiming to know and love Jesus!

Jesus said that people who take up a lifestyle of practicing lawlessness will experience eternal judgment. They will not enter the kingdom of God. He said that you should not call Him Lord unless you are doing the things He said. John said that those who claim to know God while living a life of commandment breaking are liars. They do not know God and they certainly do not love Him.

What is then is the duty of the church in such cases? First, it is to lovingly correct. Matt. 18:15-18 could not be more clear on this account. They church has a duty to go to anyone in sin and lovingly confront and correct them. It is not left to the church not to do this. She has no right to refuse this service. Christ commands it! If the person listens, the brother or sister has been won. If repeated attempts to turn the individual from the sin fails to produce results, the church must act to excommunicate the individual, treating them like she would any other unbeliever, loving them, but making it obvious that the Christian community rejects the individual's claims to Christ as invalid. The church is responsible to love individuals and seek their spiritual growth and well-being. In addition to this however, the church is also responsible to keep sin out of the body. She must not permit leaven to exist in her midst. Leaven speads to others. If the sin of promiscuity, homosexuality, lying, divorce, fornication, etc. are permitted to exercise free hand in the community, it won't be long before the church is filled with unrgenerate men and women. Such a condition is not actually a church. But this is precisely the condition of most churches in western culture and certainly in America. We allow celebrities to divorce their husbands, key members' homosexual children to participate, unlawful sexual promiscuity among the youth, malicious gossip among the old, along with hate, division and a multitude of other sin to prevail without lifting so much as a finger to address it.

Paul said that by declaring the full counsel of God, the blood of all men was cleansed from his hands. Pastors, those of you who turn a deaf ear to the existence of these conditions in your churches, all the while doing absolutely nothing to put them out or change them, the converse is true: the blood of these people is on your hands. If you are an elder and you do not understand this or you disagree, this is a sure indication you should not be an elder. Do yourself a favor, run, don't walk to church and resign immediately. The judgment for men who tolerate this kind of nonsense is going to be far heavier than it is for the rest of those who are not in leadership roles.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Pastorate, Politics, and Pragmatism

We live in a highly political and pragmatic culture. The heightened awareness that exists around image, self, success, and the political sophistication necessary for self-preservation is painfully obvious even to the obtuse spectator. I have been in the Christian community for 32 years now. I was converted to Christianity, having been regenerated by God’s work, in 1979 at the Crawley Creek Church of God in the coalfields of southwestern WV. Well, that is at least where conversion became visible. I have a little experience under my belt in the Christian community now. I spent some time in the Church of God, an independent Baptist, and more recently, the PCA. The one constant that I have to say exists in every church I have ever been in is the political atmosphere. I do not blame certain failures in the Christian community on politics or pragmatism. Rather, I see these elements as symptoms of far greater problems in the community of faith.


Politics comes from the Greek word politikoV. It means “the total complex of relations between people living in society.” The word politics has come to be used as mostly a pejorative term as of late. It has evolved in use and is now employed to describe situations in which favoritism rather than objective reason justly applied appears as the controlling factor in decisions and policies. Understanding the meaning of the term politics immediately causes one to wonder how we could ever avoid it. There is an old saying that perception is reality. The perception by most people in western culture is that politics is ruining our society. The truth is that the founding fathers unavoidably did politics to found our nation, and it will be what guides it into the future, good or bad. The issue we have with politics is not de facto politics. As is true with every other human practice, ethical neutrality does not exist in politics. If political actions are necessary, then the Christian must search for, discover, and employ Christian ethics in their practice of politics. Again, politics is the art of managing the collective concerns of a society in general. There is an ethical manner in which to carry out that management, and of course, there are numerous unethical ways to carry it out. When people in positions of power do politics for the sole purpose of remaining in power or for direct or indirect personal benefit, we classify such politics as unethical. From a secular standpoint, politics is managing the affairs of social concern for the greater good of the society in question. That which benefits society as a whole may in fact be detrimental to certain people already holding power. At a minimum, societal benefit may be derived from policies that actually limit the power-holder’s own endeavors. In essence, the one thing that stands to get in the way of politics more than any other single factor is “self.” We do not have a problem with politics. We don’t even have a problem with politicians per se. We have a problem with unethical men in positions of considerable political influence. Because ethics controls how one does politics, it is critical that we have ethical people doing politics. Because politics seeks to good of the overall society and because western society is highly individualistic, the challenge to engage in ethical politics is great. Ethical politics requires self-sacrificing service. The more individualistic our society becomes the more challenging ethical politics will be. This cultural phenomenon has the tendency to leak through the very porous walls of the Christian community.

What is true in secular society is ever more so in the Christian community. We do politics in the church. By definition of what the church is, of the role of Scripture, and the general meaning of the term, politics is unavoidable. The ethical standards for politics in the church is far greater than what we could ever expect to experience in secular society. While the primary concern of secular politics is the collection of society as a whole that is not the case in the church. Secular politics may require a decision that benefits 80%, 90%, or even 95% of society as a whole while having a negative impact on a small minority. Not so in the Christian community. The church is not left to draft policy and decide what will benefit the community as a whole. Pastors, elders, and deacons do not share the same kind of power or influence that secular leaders do. The policies and direction of the church have already been decided. God has made the call. What He says will benefit the body of Christ benefits the entire body. Yet, we see unethical politics in the church, don’t we. We see high contributors getting the ear of the pastor and the elders more than the small contributors. We see pastors deciding not to discipline people for egregious sin because of their connections with key contributors and influencers in the church. We see elder boards engineered in a way that favors the current administration and makes sure that the key initiates of the pastor are protected and preserved because he has men in his pocket. We see pastors make false accusations against those who represent a threat, destroying their credibility so that his power is preserved. We see high contributors get the color of carpet they prefer. We see Sunday school curriculum used because the author or source is a favorite of a particular contributor. We see denominations make decisions based on the popularity of a particular pastor because he is a highly published author or a highly visible personality. There are cases where homosexual members are allowed because they are the son or daughter of prominent members of key contributors. We see all these behaviors because, first of all, we are sinners. But this is no excuse to ignore the fact that the church of Jesus Christ is not our church.

The church does not belong to us. It does not belong to you. It does not belong to the highest contributor. It does not belong to the pastor. It does not belong to the elders. It belongs to Jesus Christ who purchased it with His own blood.

The Jerusalem conference is a perfect example of NT politics in the Christian community. Read Acts 15 to understand what Christian politics in the church should look like. Now read Acts 20:17-38 to see what Paul thought the basic job of elders/pastors is. This is doing politics. This is managing the Christian community over which God has placed these men in charge. Pastors and elders have way too much power today over things they should not. They can decide, in and of themselves, who to discipline and who not. They can refuse to correct those who need it because of their connections and actually defame others who are less connected and there is no one to stop them. Worse, if the person attempts to defend themselves, they look all the more guilty. If you ever find yourself in such a position, leave it to God. Speak your peace according to Scripture in love with conviction and leave it to prayer. Love those who don’t love you back. Whatever you do, avoid retribution, and avoid unethical politics. You only hurt yourself when you do that. The church is the last place that unethical politics should exist. Nevertheless, it exists in the church as well. Christ will purge it where we cannot. Evil men who look after themselves will be revealed in the last day. God will show the rest of us who they are. Their shame will be deeper than anything they could ever have imagined. God will bring to light the deeds of evil men committed in darkness.


We have seen lot of this philosophy in the church, especially since the Rick Warren craze began. I saw a pastor slowly begin to move his church toward a seeker-sensitive model under the guise that if we can just get them in the door, we can help them with the gospel. Of course this never happens. What happens it just the opposite! The message is transformed to further support the overarching pragmatic goal of numeric growth. Therefore, whatever threatens the numbers is itself a threat. Initially, this strategy is usually very subtle. Over the course of months and years, it becomes less so. Pastors and elders end up teaching and preaching differently. Subjects are avoided or modified so as not to threaten the overall goal of numeric growth or of retaining key contributors. This pragmatism is also seen in scholarship. Scholars adopt, as their goal, academic respectability, forgetting that the foundation of the very reason for their existence is the approval of a holy God. Many, if not most in academia are despisers of God. Therefore, these despisers of God view as unfavorable, strong arguments for God and His revelation and treat any threat to intellectual autonomy with utter contempt. This places the scholar in the very precarious position of choosing “either” God’s favor “or” academic respectability in most cases. For those scholars who are hostile to the faith, the self-attesting authority of Scripture and its acceptance at face value is a position they find exceptionally offensive and label as extremely naïve and uncritical. In the name of pragmatism, many conservative scholars seek a mediating position. We see these efforts even in the PCA where the young earth creationists are losing ground year over year in their efforts to preserve and protect a straightforward exegesis of Gen. 1-3. The inerrancy of Scripture is at stake even though many compromisers do not see how. Unregenerate thought in politics and pragmatism within the Christian community will eventually flush out biblically reformed thinking and seek to extinguish it because it is by nature a very real and present threat to its desire for autonomy. Unregenerate thinking is not content to get along with its counterpart. Unregenerate thought realizes that regenerate thinking represents a threat to its very existence. In order to eliminate that threat, it convinces the regenerate mind to compromise in the name of pragmatism until it can establish a stronghold large enough to eliminate the threat.


For the Christian pastor living in western culture, few temptations are more challenging than the temptation to unethical politics and pragmatism. Pastors have temptations to sin like any other human being. They are no different in their material make-up. Ontologically speaking, these men are sinners like the rest of the church. In fact, the temptations and pressures of the pastorate introduce an entire array of temptations that most of the rest of us are not likely to be as familiar with as the typical pastor. The pressure to maintain the numbers in many cases is not about raw pride, although, in many, many cases, it is. It can be about budgets and poor money management or bad financial decisions. Churches are so enamored with their pastors that they give them carte blanche on anything they wish to do. Personality worship is alive and well in western culture. A pastor may fear budget shortfalls, and therefore, take a very pragmatic or politic approach to sermon topics and even content. I watched a building campaign begin once by using the manipulative tool of painting anyone who disagreed with the initiative as grumbling or complaining Israelites. The entire Sunday school department began a series geared toward silencing all dissenters by placing them in this category. At the end of the day, when you boil it down to the fundamental job of the pastor, I think the modern, western Christian community is radically wide of the mark concerning the role and function of the pastor.

John MacArthur
Godly pastors deserve our honor and respect. I admire those men who make the sacrifice of ministry service to people who, in great measure, are mostly ungrateful. In our culture, the things that matter most are the things that receive the least amount of attention and appreciation. Conversely, the things the matter the least receive the greatest amount of attention and appreciation. The man who stands in the pulpit with flair, looks, and charm is lauded and adored. It matters very little if the content of his message is biblical or not. All that matters is that his “style” floats your boat. This is not surprising, given the individualistic orientation and narcissism of our culture. This is just as true for the country church as it is for the suburban mega-church. Let a trained orator who is used to lecturing seminary students enter a country church and preach a sermon on salvation using his typical style and see what happens. He could preach accurately and faithfully exactly what God says on the matter, but that will not matter. His style is not a fit. I do not see this as a cultural issue. It is an issue of ungodliness in the hearts and minds of people, many of whom are unregenerate. The problem for pastors in an individualistic culture such as ours is their own proclivities for individualism and autonomy. Far too often, the pastor sees himself as CEO, executive, or managing director of Jesus, Inc. It is his job to make things happen and get things done. His individualistic bent sees disagreements or challenges as obstacles to be overcome. If someone gets in the way of his goal, whatever that goal might be, he may try to “sell them” on his objectives at first. If that strategy fails, oftentimes the modern pastor will resort to ungodly manipulative tactics to get his way. These are the hirelings! They stack the deacon board or the session with men they know they can easily influence to move in their direction. In effect, this destroys the plurality of leadership that is designed to protect against the sinful proclivities of dominant personality types. It looks good on paper, but in reality, it is all too easy to circumvent. I listen to sermons from a certain pastor once in a while that I know does not practice what he preaches from the pulpit. He is not the only one. I am in utter amazement how you can stand up and talk about things week after week and not actually believe them yourself. You only believe them if you practice them!

We need men in the church who are going to respect the office of elder/pastor more than ever. The social pressures to compromise are greater than ever. The pastor’s job is really quite simple to describe at least - declare to your people the whole purpose of God while guarding yourself from vain and worldly aspirations. Paul gave the Ephesian elders the formula for successful pastoring in Acts 20:17-38. Pastor, toward all men you are to be: above reproach, no womanizer, temperate, wise, high social standing, hospitable, a skilled teacher, not addicted to alcohol, not eager or quick to argue, gentle, peaceable, unconcerned with material possessions. The pastor sees himself as a servant-leader, not the man in charge of everything. You know you have the wrong man when he has a sign in his office that says, “The buck stops here.” The hardest job for the pastor is loving the saints. This does not mean it is difficult to love the difficult to love. Rather, it is draining for the pastor to care so much about people. People make a mess of their lives because they are sinners. Loving pastors are relentless in their pursuit of these types. They are us! For pastors who are more concerned with their numbers, status, prestige, there are more challenging occupations. However, for pastors who are passionately in love with God, truth, and his people: a more difficult job is not.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

J.P. Holding's Total Depravity: A Calvinist Responds (III of III)

Acts 16:14 And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul.

Palmer tells us of Lydia, "Only after the Lord opened her heart was (Lydia) able to give heed to what was said by Paul. Until then, her understanding was darkened, to use Paul's description of the Ephesian Gentiles (Eph. 4:18)." [Palm.5P, 15]

Granting this -- for no such description is applied to Lydia at all by Luke -- I can see no reason why this cannot be an example of the paradigm I have outlined above whereby the Holy Spirit, drawing upon all men's hearts, now gives them what they need to make the decision of their own accord. If I may hypothesize a moment, it now appears that we will be leading into another petal off the TULIP doctrine -- that of Irresistible Grace -- and we found that to be lacking here.
I do not know which version Holding is using here to give us Acts 16:14. I will provide the NA27 Greek text, my own rough translation, and then the superior NASB translation so that you can see what the text is actually saying.

καί τις γυνὴ ὀνόματι Λυδία, πορφυρόπωλις πόλεως Θυατείρων σεβομένη τὸν θεόν, ἤκουεν, ἧς ὁ κύριος διήνοιξεν τὴν καρδίαν προσέχειν τοῖς λαλουμένοις ὑπὸ τοῦ Παύλου. And a certain woman named Lydia, a merchant in purple cloth, in the city of Thyatira one fearing God, was hearing, whom the Lord opened the heart to respond to the spoken words of Paul.

This is the rough translation of the Greek text. The NASB says, A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. The semantic function of the Greek word prosechein is purpose. The Lord opened her heart to respond to the things being spoken by Paul. Again, at the risk of sounding redundant, the semantic use of the infinitive here clearly is purpose. In this case, it functions as an adverb, modifying dienoizeni. Lydia’s heart was opened to respond. Christ opened Lydia’s heart for the purpose of responding. God’s work on the human heart is the prerequisite to a positive response to the gospel. Holding would contend that God may open the heart, but the response may still be negative. Nowhere is this process ever documented in Scripture. The heart of the unbeliever is everywhere pictured as hardened, blind, ignorant, and bound by the sin nature. This goes back to John 6 where Jesus informs us that the reason people reject the gospel is because God has not granted them the ability to believe and accept it. This is also seen in John 10 where Jesus says that the unbeliever is not his sheep and this explains why they don’t believe. He says you don’t believe because you are not my sheep, not, you are not my sheep because you don’t believe. In other words, it is the status of being or not being God’s sheep that is seen as the cause of belief or faith, not the other way around. Moreover, we are God’s sheep, not because of anything we do or are, but because of His choice and His choice alone.

Holding then refers to Eph. 4:18 which describes the unbeliever’s state of mind as darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God. It is interesting that Holding does not interact with this text. I shall return to this in my summary of Holding’s supposed treatment of Total Depravity.

This word is used in the very same semantic structure in Luke 24:45. This time to present active infinitive is the Greek word sunienai and it means to understand. It is used 26 times in the NT and every time it means to understand or comprehend. In this case, Jesus is said to open the minds of the disciples for the purpose of understanding the Scripture. This theme emerges throughout the NT. It is unfortunate that Holding chose the path he did. He pointed to various texts that, perhaps, he felt could easily be viewed in from a different perspective and seemingly intentionally left the rest untreated. It is quite interesting to see so many texts on the subject of depravity missing from an eight page paper on the subject.

Holding began his paper by stating that he believed that Scripture taught the doctrine of total depravity. This statement begs the question why he found it necessary to spend so much time attempting to deny it for the remainder of his paper.

Holding's Brilliant Conclusion
After all of this criticism of those who favor the doctrine of total depravity, I would remind the reader that I have indeed come to the conclusion that it is Scriptural -- just not found clearly in a majority of verses usually cited in favor of it. Those verses are perhaps persuasion, but only the one in John 6 that we began with, of those we have examined, is clear proof.

Response and Conclusion
First of all, it is difficult to say what this paper is about. One would assume it concerns Holding’s view on Total Depravity. That is the hook Holding uses to reel you in. However, any Calvinist recognizes immediately that Holding’s restatement of total depravity is lacking and filled with gaps that leave the door open for Arminian revisionism. Why Holding thinks it is right to state that he adopts the doctrine when he redefines it to suit his own purpose and then spends most of his paper denying it is puzzling. Granted, Holding could merely be attempting to deal with those Scriptures that he thinks do not teach total depravity in order to correct those poor Calvinists that think they do. Why such a paper is necessary, I do not know. Moreover, I highly doubt any Calvinists are going to read it and be convinced. If that is his goal, he even falls short on that account for he manages to mangle several texts that do teach total depravity as mentioned above.

My conclusion is that J.P Holding has redefined total depravity. His definition of the term is actually not the reformed doctrine of total depravity at all. If he wished to define it and affirm it, he could have easily selected a number of sources to quote from and simply affirm its truthfulness. He did not do this because he really does not accept the doctrine and the number of statements he makes throughout this paper indicating his belief in unregenerate ability prove this is likely the case. It is my opinion that this is the reason he chose the texts in this paper that he did. He did not select texts such as Eph. 2:1-10, 1 Cor. 2:14, Romans 8:6-8, 2 Cor. 4:4, Rom. 1, 3:10-18 or even Eph. 4:18 and a variety of others. These texts are far more difficult for anyone attempting to rebut the doctrine of total depravity. J.P. Holding seems to be one more intellectually dishonest synergist that wants to muddy the waters and confuse the issue of total depravity with his use of a hermeneutic of convenience and Arminian revisionism.

So says the Canons of Dort in III & IV:

Article 1

Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright, all his affections pure, and the whole man was holy. But, revolting from God by the instigation of the devil and by his own free will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and in the place thereof became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgment; became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections.

Article 4

There remain, however, in man since the fall, the glimmerings of natural understanding, whereby he retains some knowledge of God, of natural things, and of the difference between good and evil, and shows some regard for virtue and for good outward behavior. But so far is this understanding of nature from being sufficient to bring him to a saving knowledge of God and to true conversion that he is incapable of using it aright even in things natural and civil. Nay further, this understanding, such as it is, man in various ways renders wholly polluted, and hinders in unrighteousness, by doing which he becomes inexcusable before God.

Article 11

But when God accomplishes His good pleasure in the elect, or works in them true conversion, He not only causes the gospel to be externally preached to them, and powerfully illuminates their minds by His Holy Spirit, that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God; but by the efficacy of the same regenerating Spirit He pervades the inmost recesses of man; He opens the closed and softens the hardened heart, and circumcises that which was uncircumcised; infuses new qualities into the will, which, though heretofore dead, He quickens; from being evil, disobedient, and refractory, He renders it good, obedient, and pliable; actuates and strengthens it, that like a good tree, it may bring forth the fruits of good actions.

Article 12

And this is that regeneration so highly extolled in Scripture, that renewal, new creation, resurrection from the dead, making alive, which God works in us without our aid. But this is in no wise effected merely by the external preaching of the gospel, by moral suasion, or such a mode of operation that, after God has performed His part, it still remains in the power of man to be regenerated or not, to be converted or to continue unconverted; but it is evidently a supernatural work, most powerful, and at the same time most delightful, astonishing, mysterious, and ineffable; not inferior in efficacy to creation or the resurrection from the dead, as the Scripture inspired by the Author of this work declares; so that all in whose heart God works in this marvelous manner are certainly, infallibly, and effectually regenerated, and do actually believe. Whereupon the will thus renewed is not only actuated and influenced by God, but in consequence of this influence becomes itself active. Wherefore also man himself is rightly said to believe and repent by virtue of that grace received.


While I have interacted somewhat with JP Holding’s view of depravity, my main purpose for these posts has been to argue that total depravity has a specific definition given to it by the Reformed churches. This definition is best left to those who actually subscribe to it. Moreover, it is better to travel back in time, to those theological giants that helped frame up the biblical teaching on the subject to begin with. For that reason, I referenced men like Bavinck, Dabney, the Westminster Confession, and even the Canons of Dort. It should be obvious that these sources are superior in their ability to define what is mean by human depravity in the Calvinist system of theology. Abraham Kuyper, another theological giant within reformed theology says, “Setting entirely aside this queer idea (as our fathers would say, “very curious” opinion), we state therefore – once again unequivocally and in the clearest terms possible – that the confessions of the Reformed churches (including the 37th question of the Catechism) actually teach such a deep corruption of the human heart through sin that they unquestionable deny a power in the sinner’s heart to accept the offered Christ.” [Kuyper, Particular Grace. 62]

For this reason, JP Holding’s “supreme point” following from his premises is terribly misguided. According to Holding, Total Depravity, in sum, teaches, “We are unable of ourselves to turn to Christ to be saved.” This understanding of Total Depravity is so vague that even a staunch Universalist could subscribe to it. Holding fails to understand and articulate the reformed doctrine of total depravity. Therefore, any criticism he offers of the doctrine is a straw man. Moreover, his claim to adopt the “T” in TULIP is not adoption at all. If a person desires to know what Reformed churches mean by Total Depravity, it is best to look to the Canons of Dort, the Westminster Confession, and theologians such as Augustine, Calvin, Warfield, Hodge, Kuyper, and Bavinck. From an ethical standpoint, it is only right and fair to ensure that you understand precisely what “total depravity” is before saying that you affirm its truthfulness. What is very draining is the unethical practice in the Christian community of men who say they accept the Calvinist teaching of total depravity when they do not understand it, or worse, when they intentionally revise its meaning and then say they affirm it. Bonk!

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