Sunday, November 09, 2008

When Election Becomes Foreknowledge

Last Friday morning Dr. Chuck Kelley, President of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was called upon by Dr. Vines to open the the John 3:16 Conference with prayer. Before Dr. Kelley prayed, he said that we are in a crisis of evangelism unparalleled in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention, caused by a resurgence of Calvinism. He then thanked the organizers of the John 3:16 Conference for hosting such an important event to determine the appropriate response to Calvinism. From the opening comments and prayer, I felt that the second day of the John 3:16 Conference might be just a tad tougher on Southern Baptist Calvinists than the previous night. I was correct. Over the next few posts I will offer some observatios about the second day of the John 3:16 Conference beginning today with Dr. Richard's land assessment and response to the Calvinistic docrine called “Unconditional Election.”

Dr. Richard Land, President of the Christian Life Commission; “Unconditional Election.”

Dr. Land’s title for his presentation was called “Congruent Election: Understanding Salvation from an Eternal Perspective.” Dr. Land is a D.Phil from Oxford, and is both bright and articulate. He stated clearly in his introduction that he did not believe at all in L of TULIP (Limited Atonement); he believed totally and completely in P of TULIP (Perseverance of the Saints); but as he would show in this particular session, he only believed in fractions of Total Depravity, Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace as defined by the Calvinists. Then he made his money statement, “If God had chosen to send Jesus to die for the elect, He would still be a loving, merciful and gracious God – but, that is not what the Bible teaches.”

Land proceeded then to show what he believed the Bible teaches in terms of election. He began by showing what he called “The Leland Compromise,” which is the name designated for 19th Century Baptist John Leland’s view of soteriology (i.e. "the doctrine of salvation"). Leland believed in both the eternal purposes of God in election and the freedom of the human will. He believed that the preaching most blessed of God is that which emphasizes God’s sovereign grace with a little bit of Arminianism sprinkled in. Land said that Baptists in the south, seventy years before the formation of the SBC, follwed Leland's view of soteriology that emphasized BOTH God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. Land observed that Baptists were always at their best when both truths are emphasized. He added that too many preachers today try to rationalize one truth over and against the other.

Dr. Land then personally confessed to a historic Baptist understanding of salvation by saying “I believe election is consistent with the free agency of man.” He then suggested the more difficult question is “How should election be defined?” Dr. Land proposed that some of the early leaders of the SBC, commonly called "The Founders," taught that God “unconditional elects” certain sinners to salvation, while excluding others. Dr. Land said this view of election,held by the Founder of the SBC, was contrary to the views of the majority of Southern Baptists laymen at the time. Accordingly, some SBC leaders today hold to "Unconditional Election," contrary to the majority of the SBC.

Dr. Land said the Calvinist's view of election is based upon confusing the Old Testament teaching of God electing the nation of Israel with the New Testament teaching of God electing of sinners. The former he called “Abrahamic election” and the latter he called “Salvific election.” He said Presbyterians confuse the church with Israel and Israel with the church, and Southern Baptists who have turned to Presbyterian ecclesiology have made the same error and taught that God elected certain sinners (not all) to salvation. He then explained that Romans 9-11 is a consideration of the NATIONAL election of the Gentiles, and the setting aside of the NATION of the Jews (at least for a season), but nowhere is personal election to salvation the subject of romans 9-11. He said Dr. H.A. Ironside helped him see that the Apostle Paul was referring to nations in Romans 9-11, not individuals.

Dr. Land then became specific on what he believed what the Bible taught about election. He quoted Romans 8:29 which states that we are elect according the “foreknowledge” of God. God desires all (pas) men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. God willeth all men to be saved, and He has given His Son as a ransom for all, but He does not violate our freedom. He will not force us to be converted. He allows us to choose for ourselves.

But, according to Dr. Land, this is where God's “foreknowledge” comes in to play. God knows all things that happen in time - now. There is no "future" to God. Everything is now to Him. God treats sinners as either “elect” or “non-elect” because He knows what the sinner will choose from eternity. Time is irrelevant to God. Again, the future is the now to God. Therefore, He desires all to be saved, He gives His Son for the atonement of all sins without exception, and all that is lacking is the sinner’s reception of what God has provided, and God will treat sinners based upon His knowledge of how they will choose.

Dr. Land then made clear what is required for God to “elect” a sinner. “As the sinner attempts to respond to the saving work of God, then God gives to that sinner saving faith.” In other words, God gives the faith, and treats the sinner as His elect, His child, etc . . . when God sees “an attempt to respond.” He does not turn a deaf ear to the sinner who calls upon the name of the Lord. But, what makes Dr. Land’s view different from classical Armianism is Dr. Land believes God knows the decision of that believer BEFORE creation, because there is no future in terms of God. He transcends time; thus the title of his talk – Congruent Election. Dr. Land quoted C.S. Lewis who said “To God all the physical events and human acts are present in an eternal now.” God has all knowledge, and He knows which sinner will choose to receive what God has provided.

My Disagreements With Dr. Land’s View of Election

I appreciated Dr. Land’s desire to protect the reputation of God as a loving and gracious God. It seems to me that most of the speakers at the John 3:16 Conference, including Dr. Land, were seeking to prevent what they perceived to be a Calvinistic belief of partiality – that God creates some sinners in order to save them, and He creates other sinners for the purpose of condemning them. However, if Dr. Land and others simply thought through their orthodox view of "foreknowledge," they would see that any belief in the omniscience of God has Him creating people who knows He is going to condemn. In other words, if salvation is dependant upon a sinner’s response to God’s redemption, and if God simply knows the sinner’s response because of His foreknowledge, then God is creating sinners that He knows will never believe. He is therefore creating sinners that He will ultimately condemn. Why not just not create them?

To avoid this dilemma of why God creates sinners that He knows He will ultimately condemn, some Baptists, like Dr. Greg Boyd, now teach “open theology.” Open theology makes the claim that the future is “open” and “unknown” by God. This denial of omniscience allows the claim to be made that God is TRULY desiring all sinners to be saved, so much so that He creates every human being with the HOPE that the sinner will respond, but He does not really know if the sinner will - or will not - respond. The future is open to God - it is unknown.

There is, however, another view. It is the orthodox, historic Baptist, and biblical view of "election." This view of election is held by those who believe the Bible teaches every human being justly deserves the condemnation of a holy God because every human being is a rebel against God. This rebellion (sin) is not God's fault, it is man's choice. While God takes no pleasure in the death and condemnation of the wicked, He does justly choose to bypass some sinners for deliverance from that rebellion in order that His holiness and justice might be made manifest. But He also graciously chooses to save an innumerable company of sinners for the praise and the glory of His grace in Christ Jesus. It’s a little like darkness and light. There is no such thing as darkness – it is simple the absence of light. Yet, you never really appreciate light until you understand darkness. So too, God may choose to righteously punish sinners by simply bypassing them with His grace (i.e. “the absence of saving grace”) in order that those who experience His grace might appreciate what it is they really have from Him in Christ. Bottom line, it seems to me that if Southern Baptists really believed that every sinner is responsible for his or her rebellion to God, and that God is under no obligation to convert and deliver a rebel, then there would be no complaint for God choosing not to save any sinners and a remarkable astonishment that He would deliver even one.

Dr. Land is not an Arminian. He did an admirable job attempting to meld God’s sovereignty with man’s responsibility. However, I think both were not emphasized qite enough. Man is responsible to obey God perfectly. God holds man responsible for this obedience. But no man seeks God. No man obeys God. No man listens to God. We are all rebels. The fact that a great number of us will one day repent and fall in love with Jesus Christ is becuase He first loved us. Our salvation is due to God's unconditional choice to redeem us and shower us with His favor, which includes the softening of our hard hearts and the vivifying (regeneration) of our dead hearts. I agree wholeheartedly that if a sinner desires God to save Him, God will. But for a hardened rebel like me to desire it, God must first change my heart.

Truthfully, when Southern Baptists sometimes talk like a little like Arminians might talk, or when we Southern Baptists sometimes theorize like Arminians might theorize, or when we Southern Baptists sometimes debate like Arminians might debate, we Southern Baptists might need to just do a little preaching and a little singing. The most powerful preaching of the gospel, and the most effectual singing of the gospel, comes about when we preach and sing the chorus we Southern Baptists all believe “God saves sinners through Jesus Christ.”

I am reminded of the story of Spurgeon leading his congregation in singing one of the hymns of the famous Arminian Charles Wesley. The congregation sang:

“Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night.
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray; I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free. I rose went forth and followed Thee.”

Spurgeon closed the hymn book and exclaimed “Wesley, where is thine Arminianism now?”

I really think when Dr. Land preaches, which he does quite well, the theorizing of congruent election goes out the window and God is given sole credit for sinners repenting and turning from their sin.

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