God can use a crooked pencil to write straight
From the moment that Jesus entered his public ministry, people were divided. No surprises there; the human condition by nature is partition. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians writes:
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas [Peter]”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
In this article, I speak of Calvinists and Arminians. There is a sense in which the person “follows” Calvin or Arminius but only in the sense that each believes that one of them is true to Christ and the other is not.
Christians, like Jews, indeed like people in general, can be sliced every which way. Among Christians, one of the most noteworthy, if not remarkable, distinction is that between those who believe that 1. without their co-operation, God will not bring them to faith, and 2. faith is totally from God. The former group are called Arminians, the latter, Calvinists. If you follow the grammar, surely the correct interpretation of how we come to (faith in) Christ, and remain forever in Christ , should follow. This, sadly, does not happen. I have in mind passages in John 6, Romans 8 and Romans 9.
(John 6:37-40 ESV; my italics)
“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Romans 8:29-30 ESV
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
“Foreknew” does not mean foreknowing that you – corrupt creature that you are/were – will choose Christ, but foreknowing youin the same way as in “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5). If you’re not an open theist, you believe that God knows everybody. In Jeremiah 1 and Romans 8 above, “(fore)knew” means “(fore)loved”), “singled out,” the “elect.” “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” (Romans 8:33b ESV)
Furthermore, if those God “foreknows” means God looking down the corridors of time, then the “pre” in “predestines,” which follows “foreknows,” makes no sense, for if God chooses you because he sees what you are going to do he would simply “destine” you, not “predestine” you.
Romans 9:13-18 ESV
We move on to Romans 9, the clincher – for a Calvinist, the (teeth-)clencher for many an Arminian. The context – it is definitely not the election of the nation Israel – is individual salvation: a remnant of Jews and Gentiles.
As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy…So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
I wonder how many Christians come to faith through any of the above verses. Imagine Augustine of Hippo, after hearing a child say take up and read, flicking open his Bible at random not to a passage telling him he was a miserable depraved wretch, but instead to “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:18b). Here is Augustine:
“So was I speaking and weeping in the most bitter contrition of my heart, when, lo! I heard from a neighbouring house a voice, as of boy or girl, I know not, chanting, and oft repeating, “Take up and read; Take up and read. “ Instantly, my countenance altered, I began to think most intently whether children were wont in any kind of play to sing such words: nor could I remember ever to have heard the like. So checking the torrent of my tears, I arose; interpreting it to be no other than a command from God to open the book, and read the first chapter I should find. For I had heard of Anthony, that coming in during the reading of the Gospel, he received the admonition, as if what was being read was spoken to him: Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven, and come and follow me: and by such oracle he was forthwith converted unto Thee. Eagerly then I returned to the place where Alypius was sitting; for there had I laid the volume of the Apostle when I arose thence. I seized, opened, and in silence read that section on which my eyes first fell: Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying; but put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, in concupiscence. No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away” (Augustine, Confessions Book XII).
Here’s a thing: Augustine later became famous for his “Grant what You command, and command what You desire,” which echoes “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy…So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. (Romans 9:13-18), which is summed up in his famous “Grant what You command, and command what You desire.”
Scriptures that speak to a person’s situation – depression, bereavement, poverty and so forth – are often the ones that attract one to the Gospel, but not always, for what is irrelevant to us may be, and indeed often is, relevant to God. God sovereignly chooses both means and ends, which may either connect to our situation or become a gradual realisation, or sometimes arrive as a bolt from the blue, where the last thing on your mind is Christ. Archibald Alexander explains:
“The question is sometimes asked, is regeneration an instantaneous or a gradual work? This is not a merely speculative question. If this is a gradual work, the soul may for some time, yea, for years, be hanging between life and death, and be in neither one state or nor the other, which is impossible. Suppose a dead man to be brought to life by a divine power, as Lazarus was, could there be any question of whether the communication of life was immediate? Even if the vital principle was so weak as not to manifest itself at once, yet its commencement must be instantaneous; because it may be truly asserted that such a man is dead or alive; if the former, life has not commenced, and whenever that state ceases, the man lives, for there is no intermediate state. So in regard to the communication of spiritual life, the same thing may be asserted; for whatever regeneration is, the transition from a state of nature to a state of grace must occur at some point of time, the moment before the sinner was unregenerate” (Archibald Alexander, A Practical View of Regeneration).
Here are the Arminian and Calvinist views of the famous passage, “Behold I stand at the door and knock”:
“Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20). If you’re an Arminian like John Stott – whose “The Cross of Christ” has been called a masterpiece by a Calvinist like J.I. Packer, and which I also think is a great work – Revelation 3:20 means this:
“Yes Jesus Christ says he is standing at the door of our lives, waiting.” (Stott is talking to the unsaved, those who are dead in sin, the unsaved – Ephesians 2). “He is the landlord; he bought it with his life-blood. He could command us to open to Him; instead, he merely invites us to do so. He will not force and entry into anybody’s life. He says (verse 18) ‘I counsel you.’ he could issue orders; he is content to give advice. Such are his condescension and humility, and the freedom he has given us” (John Stott, “Basic Christianity,” Intervarsity Press, 1958, p. 124).
Here is the Calvinist interpretation from Charles Spurgeon. Spurgeon is addressing the depressed Christian:
“Let me speak to the depressed, and remind them that the prayer is instructive, for it shows that all that is wanted for a forsaken, forgotten spirit is that God should visit it again. “Remember me, O Lord. Anybody else’s remembering can do me no good, but if thou only give one thought toward thy servant, it is all done. Lord, I have been visited by the pastor, and he tried to cheer me. I have had a visit in the preaching of the gospel in the morning and the evening of thy day. I went to thy table, and I did not get encouragement there. But, Lord, do thou visit me!” A visit from Christ is the cure for all spiritual diseases. I have frequently reminded you of that in the address to the Church at Laodicea. The Church at Laodicea was neither cold nor hot, and Christ said that he would spew it out of his mouth; but do you know how he speaks of it as if he would cure it? “ Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and sup with him, and he with me.” That is not an address to sinners. It is sometimes used so, but it is rent out of its connection. It is evidently an address to a church of God, or a child of God, who has lost the presence and the light of God’s countenance. All you want is a visit from Christ. All you want is that once again your communion should be restored; and I do bless the Lord that he can do that of a sudden, in a moment! He can make thy soul, “or ever it is aware, like the chariots of Ammi-nadib.” You may have come here to-night about as dead in soul as you could be, but the flashes of eternal life can reach you, and kindle a soul within, within the ribs of your old dead nature once again. You may have felt as if it was all over, and the last spark of grace had gone out; but when the Lord visits his people, he makes the wilderness and the solitary place to rejoice, and the desert to blossom as the rose. I do pray it may be such a happy hour to you that the prayer may be fulfilled, “Visit me with thy salvation.” I have great sympathy with those that are cast down. God, the comfort of those that are cast down, comfort you! May he bring you out who are bound with chains; and you solitary ones, may he set you in families! And I do not know a wiser method for you to pursue than incessantly to cry unto him; and let this be the prayer, “Remember me — me — with the favor which thou bearest to thy people: O visit me with thy salvation” (Spurgeon’s sermon “Psalm 106:4 Fine Pleading”). (See Is God Knocking at the Door of Whosoever’s Heart?
The question is: Can a wrong interpretation – only one can be right – of “I stand at the door and knock” be the catalyst of salvation. Yes, and the same goes for any verse in the Bible; though it’s hard to see how “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy” can bring someone to Christ unless Christ has already brought him. That’s what Calvinism teaches: you’re dead and the next thing you know you’re coming alive or are alive. That’s what happened to Archibald Alexander, whom I have already quoted above. And what scripture did it for him? Why, “I stand at the door and knock.” Here’s the story byJohn Van Der Brink:
“Archibald Alexander was born in 1772 in a log house in Lexington, Virginia. Life was hard and crude for the young boy, but he was a good scholar, and at an early age showed signs of academic promise. His learning was, however, without piety, and his only notion of religion at this time was that it consisted in “becoming better.” The idea of a second “birth” was totally strange to him.”
“It is remarkable how the Lord led young Archibald to his conversion. He was employed as a young tutor, and his task was to read for an old woman from the sermons of John Flavel. While reading Flavel’s sermon on Rev. 3:20, “Behold I stand at the door and knock,” he was so struck with the patience, kindness, and forbearance of the Lord Jesus Christ to impenitent and obstinate sinners that he felt overwhelmed. His heart was moved and made anxious and inquiring. This led to an interest in the works of Owen, Baxter, Alleine, Halyburton, Boston, Erskine, Dodridge, and Whitefield. These sermons, which to him were boring before, now became moving and eloquent as they were blessed to his heart. He was led to see Christ as his only Advocate before the throne of God. He made profession of his faith in 1789 at 17 years of age.”
Alexander went on to become a Presbyterian and founder of Princeton seminary, a Calvinist institution. Alexander came to faith through an Arminian interpretation of “I stand at the door and knock.” The irony is that Calvinists follow Spurgeon’s interpretation of “I stand at the door and knock.” This example illustrates that God can use contradictory interpretations of scripture (indeed of any situation) to draw his elect – those whom the Father gave to the Son before the creation of the world. I don’t know whether Alexander wrote about (what must have been for him, as a subsequent Calvinist) a wrong interpretation of “I stand at the door and knock.” It would be interesting if he had written about it. Here is Alexander’s explanation, in his mature years, of how we come to Christ:
Lazarus was called from the dead by the voice of Christ, but he must have been inspired with life before he could hear that voice. But still it is proper to say, that he was called into life by the omnipotent voice of our Savior. So when the gospel is preached, the dead hear the voice of the Son of God and live. Or we may illustrate the instrumentality of the word by the case of the blind man whose eyes our Lord opened. This man, when he first looked up, saw objects indistinctly, “men as trees walking;” but when he looked a second time, he saw things clearly. Christ caused this man to see by the light of heaven which shone around him; but the power causing him to see was exerted on the eye, removing the obstacles to vision, or supplying what was defective in the organ. As soon as this was done, the light was the medium of the perception of surrounding objects. Thus the soul of every man is by nature blind. The light may shine around him, but he comprehendeth it not. “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God, they are foolishness unto him, neither can he know them because they are spiritually discerned.” By the energy of the Holy Spirit this incapacity of spiritual vision is taken away; the eyes of the understanding are enlightened. The blindness is removed, and spiritual objects are perceived; but alas! with most, very indistinctly at first. “The light of the just increaseth more and more unto the perfect day.” ( Achibald Alexander, A Practical View of Regeneration Part I).
A far cry from “I stand at the door and knock, now all you have to do is turn the key, let me in and you will be saved.” Archibald Alexander, the Calvinist of later years, might have said something like this about his conversion: “How could my withered hand have opened anything? There’s more – or is it less?: How could my withered soul desire Christ?”
If only I could understand more; alas, or should it rather be, thank God that I don’t fully understand. Here is Adolph Saphir, a Jewish Christian, in his “The divine unity of scripture,” p. 144-145:
“There are many difficulties in the Bible, but they are as great difficulties to the learned as they are to the unlearned. In the Church of Christ there is no distinction. These things are written for all the children of God, and if we do not understand everything we must wait till it pleases God to make it plain to us, and perhaps it will never be made plain to us ; but all that is profitable and necessary and salutary and enjoyable is plain to the Christian. I admit that the Bible is very obscure to two classes of people. The Bible is very obscure to those who wish to find in the Bible what is not there. And if we are determined not to find inthe Bible what is in the Bible, the Bible is also very obscure. Oh, what difficulties have those rationalists had! They did not wish to find in the Bible the divinity of Jesus. They did not wish to find in the Bible the substitution in the death of Christ. They did not wish to find in the Bible the necessity of regeneration. They afterwards did not wish to find in the Bible anything miraculous. Oh, it was exceedingly difficult to explain the Bible, until at last a man like Strauss came and said, ‘Now what is the use of deceiving yourselves and deceiving the world and being simply jugglers? You do not believe it, and it is much better to say that you do not believe it and there is no explaining it. It is simply a mythical representation of ideas.’ But if we are willing to find in the Bible what is in the Bible, the Bible simple.” (David Strauss, himself a “rationalist,”rejected these doctrines)
Thank God that He never depends on human understanding to bring us to faith. But, dear Arminians, this may be true about coming to faith, but certainly not true about growing in faith.