If God Predestines People for Salvation, Why Do We Need Missions?

The Dilemma
In 1792, at a Baptist Ministers’ Meeting in Northampton, England, William Carey proposed to discuss the topic of “The duty of Christians to attempt the spread of the Gospel among heathen nations.” Then, John R. Ryland, the presiding minister, frowned and thundered, “Young man, sit down. When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine” (John Marshman, The Life and Times of Carey, Marshman, and Ward, p. 10).

This story succinctly illustrates the fear of many missions-minded believers that a robust belief in divine sovereignty and unconditional election would render missions obsolete. The converse is also true, and some believers fear that an anthropocentric approach to missions puts the burden of human salvation on the feeble shoulders of men.

Both of these parties find their most eloquent Scriptural substantiation in Romans. Those who defer to God’s unconditionally electing prerogative cling to Romans 9:1-29, while those who emphasize the human agency in salvation point to Romans 9:30-10:21. But are these mutually exclusive doctrines?

God Predestines Some People for Salvation
It says in Romans 9:11 that God chose Jacob over Esau “before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad–in order that God’s purpose in election might stand.” In other words, there was no objective reason for God to choose Jacob over Esau. It is explicitly denied that their good or bad works are the basis for their election or reprobation, respectively. The only criterion is God’s electing purpose.

“What then shall we say? Is God unjust?” Paul replies, “Not at all!” (9:14), “for,” God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (9:15; Ex. 33:19). The transitional “for indicates that the following quotation from Exodus explains why God is not unjust in unconditionally choosing some while rejecting other.

However, it is not immediately clear just how Exodus 33:19 explains this. In fact, it seems merely to restate the problem. God is merciful to whom he wills, but the question is why he chooses to be merciful to some and not to others.

The answer lies in the fact that Exodus 33:19 is an interpretation of the name of God. The syntactical structure of the verse, which highlights the radical autonomy of God, parallels the revelation of God’s name in Exodus 3:14, “I am who I am.” The identical pair of words, “merciful” and “compassionate,” also appears in both passages, reinforcing the parallel. Thus dispensing mercy to whom he wills is part of God’s essential nature and character. That’s who God is, and therefore his sovereignty must be upheld.

Humans Are Still Responsible for Their Damnation
Interestingly, what is never questioned throughout Romans is that humans, who cannot resist God’s will, are nevertheless responsible for their own destruction (Rom. 9:19). Israel is responsible because they have not accepted the gospel even though they have heard the message (Rom. 10:16-18). Paul’s quotation from Isaiah 65:2 levels yet another indictment, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people” (Rom. 10:21).

This means that election is unconditional, but one’s final salvation is conditional: “if you confess with your mouth that ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). Paul elaborates that since people cannot call on the one they have not believed in, nor believe in the one of whom they have not heard, nor hear without someone preaching to them, it is necessary to send missionaries (Rom. 10:14-15).

We Still Need Missions
Here’s the imperative for missions. In the divinely instituted order, missions necessarily precedes people’s salvation. This urgent conviction has been the overriding impulse of the missionary movement throughout history. Furthermore, “the thought that if [people] are not elect, they will not believe us … is true; but it is none of our business,” for “the non-elect in this world are faceless men as far as we are concerned … we do not and cannot know who they are, and it is as futile as it is impious for us to try and guess” (J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, pp. 98-99).

The Two Doctrines Constitute An Antinomy
Yet the question remains, if God’s electing purposes cannot be altered, what is the point of missions? How can missions be necessary in a universe operated by God’s sovereign and unimpeachable will? The relationship between unconditional election and missions is an antimony. “Antinomy,” as defined by J.I. Packer, is an “apparent incompatibility between two apparent truths. An antinomy exists when a pair of principles stand side by side, seemingly irreconcilable, yet both undeniable” (Packer, pp. 18-19).

Our finite and fallible minds are incapable of reconciling unconditional election and missions. It is a mystery, whose apparent inconsistency finds reconciliation in the transcendent will of God. This, after all, was Paul’s response when his hypothetical critic objected, “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will” (Rom. 9:19)? He does not offer a philosophical apology, nor does he attempt to vindicate God by saying that divine election is based on God’s foreknowledge of who will or will not eventually resist him. He simply says, “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God” (Rom. 9:20)? The “solution” par excellence is to let God be God because the potter knows better than the clay (Rom. 9:19-23).

Rather than prematurely resolving this tension, the Biblical response is to abide in this tension. We are called to be missionaries who respond to the pressing need for the gospel, while attributing all honor and glory to God and his electing purposes. We are comforted by the reality that it is God who elects and saves; yet we are convicted by the reality that we must proclaim the gospel.

Do you believe in predestination? Why or why not? What is your understanding of Romans 9-10?

10 thoughts on “If God Predestines People for Salvation, Why Do We Need Missions?

  1. Shawn, I’m so glad you posted this because it speaks to something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I do see a contradiction between a call to missions and a deterministic worldview and am not satisfied by either of the two most common explanations: 1) it’s just a paradox of theology, live with it or 2) who are you to talk back to God. Here’s why: God desires, it seems to me, to share with us His plan for the world. He outlines His plan in significant detail in scripture, from beginning to end. He tells us what we are required to do for our own salvation. He gives us a plan for sharing our mode of salvation (Christ) with others. He shares details about our individual lives through the still small voice and other ways. For a paradox to emerge here seems contradictory to the character of God. Consider how many times Jesus allows people to ask him clarifying questions about the nature of truth or reality. I am not discounting the mysterium tremendum or God’s infinitely higher ways, only saying that God is not a God of confusion. It seems that a deterministic worldview is incompatible with any of the calls in scripture to do something. It’s not just preach the gospel. It’s to be holy, it’s to seek the kingdom, to love others, even smaller things like providing for your relatives (1 Timothy 5:8). Every day the Holy Spirit whispers to me and says I can sit here in my chair all day at the computer and do nothing or I can do something impactful with my life. One is quite evidently more glorifying to God. Both cannot be simultaneously compatible to His will. And yet it would be so easy for me to sit in this chair for the rest of my life…how could God ordain that? Wouldn’t I be violating His will?

    Ok, so my intention here is not to take on all of determinism because it’s never wise to match wits with David Hume, or John Calvin or J.I. Packer for that matter. My driving point is that instead of wallowing through this murky paradox, we should head Occam’s razor. It seems to be much simpler, much cleaner, and, in my opinion, much more glorifying to God, to reinterpret this passage of scripture in light of the apparently clear call of the Great Commission and our apparently free wills and our apparent responsibility to at the very least believe in God for salvation and our understanding of God’s ultimate goodness and love (where our understanding, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Problem of Pain must overlap somewhat significantly or it would be meaningless to call God good). Laying my cards on the table, I am disinclined to believe in predestination and instead believe in prevenient grace, where God’s foreknowlege in scripture refers both to who will and who will not believe in Christ and also his fore-ordained plan to have Christ be the method of salvation. Personally, I find this interpretation of Romans 9 much more compelling: http://evangelicalarminians.org/?q=Election-Schooley-Romans-9%3AAn-Arminian/New-Perspective-Reading

    I have to admit: I am personally drawn to this understanding for obvious reasons. I hope very much that it is the truth. But my call to obedience supersedes any personal preferences. So I would very much like to hear what you have to say Shawn about both my post here and the article on Romans 9. I am, hopefully, always willing to be molded according to the Truth. And I very much respect and honor your opinion!




    1. Andy,
      Thanks for your thoughtful and gracious comments. My position was nearly identical to yours 4 years ago, and it was while I was writing a thorough exegesis paper on this exact passage that I was compelled by the truth of the doctrine of unconditional election.

      First, let me express my appreciation for your recognition that this is a matter of truth rather than of personal preference. It’s not a question of which explanation is the most satisfying to us, but which explanation is the most Biblical, and, of course, Paul’s response, “But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God” (Rom. 9:20) is very Biblical indeed.

      Second, I don’t think that paradox is inconsistent with the revelation of God’s character. God is both immanent (Jer. 23:24; Acts 17:27-27) and transcendent (1 Kings 8:27; Is. 55:8-9; John 1:18). He is both Three and One. Jesus Christ is both God and man. The Scripture is the Word of God written in the words of men. We are saved by grace through faith (Rom. 4:1-12), yet our works complete our faith (James 2:14-26). This is not “confusion,” but mystery, which is appropriate since “the secret things belong to the LORD our God” (Deut. 29:29a) and “it is the glory of God to conceal a matter” (Prov. 25:2). The electing “purpose of God is inscrutable, for ‘who has known the mind of the Lord?’ (1 Cor 2:16; Rom 11:33-35, quoting Is 40:13 LXX).” This should not surprise us, since “a God whom we could understand exhaustively, and whose revelation of Himself confronted us with no mysteries whatsoever, would be a God in man’s image, and therefore an imaginary God” (Packer, p. 24).

      Third, I think my view that divine sovereignty and human responsibility constitute an antinomy IS the simplest and most faithful understanding of Scripture according to Occam’s razor. The Scripture maintains the tension without apology, it does not try to explain away unconditional election by interpolating God’s “foreknowledge.”

      Fourth, I hope you noticed that there’s no room for passivity in my view. Missions is not just a good thing, it is a necessary thing. The question of HOW missions can be necessary within the framework of divine sovereignty cannot be fully answered, since it requires that we grasp God’s eternal and transcendent will. However, I am not promoting divine sovereignty at the expense of human responsibility. Both are Scriptural. In other words, we “dare not conclude that human decisions are a charade, insignificant, or trivial. But we must also beware of a rationalizing expedient that domesticates the text by exalting human freedom so that it fits neatly into our preconceptions” (Howard Marshall, New Bible Dictionary, p. 1052).

      Fifth, contrary to the article from evangelicalarminians.org, Romans 9 is talking about election and salvation rather than about national destiny. In Paul’s writings, phrases “children of God” and “children of promise” (Rom. 9:8) refer invariably to those who are saved (Rom. 9:11-12; Gal. 4:28; Phil. 2:15). Soteriological terms such as “works” “to call” and “election” in Rom. 9:11-12 corroborate this. The covenant that God made with Israel does not pertain merely to the historical destiny of a nation, it pertains to God’s election and salvation, which is why Paul painstakingly demonstrates that God’s covenant, from the beginning, was not about physical, but a spiritual, heritage (Rom. 9:6).

      Sixth, the article makes the standard Arminian argument that Pharaoh hardened his own heart (Ex. 7:13-14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34-35), and that it was in response to his recalcitrance that God later hardened Pharaoh’s heart (Ex. 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:8). However, this overlooks the fact that in Exodus 4:21, God had already determined that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart (cf. Exodus 7:2-4a). Then, whenever Pharaoh hardens his heart, the narrator affirms that he did so “just as Yahweh had said” (Exodus 7:13, 22; 8:15, 19; 9:12, 35). This is a fulfillment of God’s word that he would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Hence, God’s reprobation of Pharaoh is logically prior to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. (Also, check his references, Pharaoh hardening his own heart and God hardening Pharaoh’s heart don’t occur in that linear order.)

      Seventh, the article interprets verse 19 “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” as “how can God blame us [the Jews] for expecting to be chosen because we’re descended from Abraham?” This is very strained and artificial. In fact, this interpretation renders the whole analogy of the potter and the clay nonsensical. The analogy shows that God, of his own will, makes “objects of mercy” and “objects of wrath” (Rom. 9:22-23). The analogy does not mention the criterion for judging the quality of the clay; it speaks of the very nature with which the potter has endowed the clay. Thus, it is not talking about the criterion for covenantal inclusion; it’s teaching that God has sovereignly elected some for covenantal inclusion and others for covenantal exclusion.

      Lastly, it is curious that the article concedes that “God has the right sovereignly to set the criteria on which he will have mercy or harden,” and that “[Paul] is telling [the Jews] that God has the right to choose whomever he wills to be among his covenant people.” If Paul is indeed saying that “the paradigm for inclusion in the covenant people has shifted” (see conclusion of the article), then this is just as “arbitrary” as unconditional election. The whole thrust of Romans 9 is that God’s word had not failed (Rom. 9:6)… The author of the article seems confused on some points.

      On an unrelated note, thanks for commenting on my blog instead of on facebook. I want other readers to be able to benefit from our dialogue. And thanks again for your honest feedback. I hope my comments add further clarity and depth to our discussion!


      1. Shawn,

        Thanks very much for your well-written response and many insightful comments. I fear that in my effort to get many thoughts on the page quickly, I lacked rhetorical precision and left my position open to many easy counter-points. I hope to clarify some of what I was unclear about as well as defend the alternative explanation of Romans 9. I should also say: because of the all-encompassing nature of theology it so often happens in debates like these that each person begins to pick apart the minor points of the other’s argument because there is no clear criterion for what truth they are hoping to uncover by their debate. That is to say, let’s focus on one aspect of the truth we’re trying to get at and then leave everything else as a distant second. The truth I would like to try to uncover is if unconditional election is true, nothing more. The interpretation of Scripture, our rational mind (implied), other theologians quotes, additional arguments, these can all augment us in our attempt to answer this question, but let’s try not to let them become the central point. Agreed? Also, what central question would you like to try to attack?

        Because of this principle, I only want to touch very briefly on this question of paradox. I agree, there are many paradoxes in the Christian faith; my response clearly suggests otherwise and I apologize for that. But it seems to me that the predestination/missions paradox (if I may use that shorthand) is of a totally different import than the others. I hope I can make my point clear. Take the paradoxes immanent/transcendent and man/God. I would argue that these are different paradoxes that predestination/missions. There not as…pure…for lack of a better term. For example, if I were to stand directly in front of a skyscraper, it would be entirely reasonable for me to describe it as both immanent and transcendent. What makes these two words almost paradoxical when applied to God is that He is so incredibly immanent and so incredibly transcendent. Same with man and God. Indeed, there is an incredible chasm between to the two. Yet we are made in the image of God. It is not as pure a paradox as say, God/devil or God/atom or God/ant. And if we really think about it, it kind of makes sense that God, who has the freedom to express Himself however He would like and a love for us that desires what is best for us, chose to bear the likeness of man. It is a symbol of sorts, one that we can relate to really easily, far more easily than if say, God became a tree. But then take predestination/missions. This one really is a paradox (and I feel comfortable with saying this is a true paradox and the others aren’t because remember, both the term “paradox” and the idea that Scripture contains paradoxes belong to us, not God). It is completely against logic in a way that the other contradictions aren’t. If we were to speak to someone without any understanding of this Christian notion of predestination and say, “It does not matter at all what you do, only what God does” never in a million years would this person then expect for a human being to make an appeal to them as, for example, Paul does in Acts 17. I presume they would just sit back and wait for something to happen from God. But surely they would not expect a human being to try to lead them toward salvation. What a waste of time! they would be thinking. And also, let’s try to put ourselves in the shoes of Paul or the twelve apostles. This next sentence is going to be a run-on so hang with me. It seems to me that if Jesus ever taught anything like the doctrine of election (and I realize here you could say John 5 or 17 but I’m not talking about your understanding of scripture, I’m talking about how the apostles understood Jesus, for ours is simply secondhand knowledge) (it also seems evident that if the doctrine of election were true, Jesus would surely make sure to explain it since it is of paramount importance) and then he told them, Go and make disciples, the apostles would look at him like, “What?” “How do you mean?” “Why bother?” It’s not like Peter had a problem talking back to/questioning Jesus. Why didn’t he speak up? And yet in both Matthew and Mark, no such response is recorded. The books just kind of end. If ever there was a chance for Jesus to make this clear, this was it! And yet, he didn’t, I think, because he didn’t need to, because he didn’t teach predestination.

        As for Romans 9, I found your interpretation less compelling and I want to look at it closely. The crux of the matter really is whether or not Paul is referring to nations or individuals (if you’ll permit that shorthand). Unfortunately, I found very little evidence in your argument to support the individuals view. Your fifth paragraph basically amounts to:
        1) It’s about individuals, not nations
        2) There are certain phrases that suggest this is true if we look elsewhere in Scripture.
        3) It’s about individuals, not nations
        That’s a crude reading, for sure, but that’s really about the extent of it. There are two main problems with your argument. Both involve a very weak reading of the article I included. The first is in regard to the second point. If you look at the passage from Galatians 4, it is very clear that Paul is talking precisely about nations (actually, lineages is a better word) and not individuals.
        Galatians 4:21: “21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.”

        And from the article:
        “Paul, significantly, interprets the quotation by stating that “it is not the natural children who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (v. 8). He is subtly doing here what he does clearly in Galatians 4:21-31: he identifies ethnic Israel with the children of Hagar, as opposed to those of Sarah. Since ethnic Israel is depending on natural descent from Abraham, they are analogous to Ishmael, who was Abraham’s descendant (not to mention the firstborn) by purely natural means. The Christians, trusting that “those who believe are children of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7), are analogous to Isaac, the child of promise. In Romans 9:8, Paul quotes Genesis 18:10, 14 to establish that the promise had indeed occurred before Isaac’s conception. Paul’s use of Isaac and Ishmael, then, is primarily intended neither to be a statement of their individual eternal election, nor to be typical of the elect and reprobate. It rather establishes that the Jewish people have no reason to trust in their descent from Abraham to guarantee their inclusion in the covenant. If they could, the descendants of Ishmael would have just as much right to claim God’s promises as could the descendants of Isaac.”

        You make a similar mistake when you say, “The covenant that God made with Israel does not pertain merely to the historical destiny of a nation, it pertains to God’s election and salvation, which is why Paul painstakingly demonstrates that God’s covenant, from the beginning, was not about physical, but a spiritual, heritage.”
        But this is precisely what the article says, that Paul is trying to demonstrate that it is a spiritual and not physical heritage. You seem to be thinking that the article interprets Paul as saying that you are saved if you are in the Isaac (Israeli) and not if you are Ishmael (Gentile) lineage. But of course not!

        The article says, “Even though Paul represents justification by faith not as a novelty but as something that began with Abraham, that does not answer the question of why God had related to His people Israel primarily on the basis of their descent from Abraham and on their keeping of the Law. Scripture makes clear that the Israelites viewed themselves as relating to God on the basis of those two things (descent from Abraham: Gen. 26:24; Dt. 4:37; Matt. 3:9; Lk. 1:72-74; keeping the Law: Ex. 20:6; Lev. 26:3ff; 1 Kings 9:4-5; Neh. 1:9; Dn. 9:4; Mt. 19:17; Ac. 15:5). The Jewish people, who had not been coming in great numbers to Christ, may well argue that if Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith were true, then God would have essentially broken His promises to Israel. If Israel sees inclusion in the covenant as based on descent from Abraham and keeping the Law, then how can God turn around and say, “No, inclusion in the covenant is not based on descent from Abraham or keeping the Law, but rather on faith in Christ”? It would seem to them that God’s word had failed (v. 6), which is what Paul is at pains to dispute in Romans 9-11.”

        And later: “In chapter 3, Paul has already demolished the possible contention that Jews can rely on keeping the Law; however, Jews may still rely on their descent from Abraham as indicating their inclusion in the covenant community. After all, the Old Testament promises regarding the restoration of Israel are not contingent upon perfect obedience to the Law; in some ways, it appears that adherence to the Law is actually one of the promises to be fulfilled (e.g., Jer. 31:33). So if Paul says that justification is by faith in Christ, and if this standard ends up excluding the majority of Jews, who have not come to faith in Christ, then he seems to void God’s promises to Israel.

        Paul’s response is simply to demonstrate that God never chose descendants of Abraham, merely as descendants of Abraham, for inclusion in the covenant community. This is clear because not all the descendants of Abraham were included, but only the descendants of Isaac, and then of Jacob. In other words, the “attrition” (if we may be permitted to call it that) that occurs with the generations of Isaac and Jacob does not stop there, but progresses throughout the descendants of Israel. It is in this sense that “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel””

        To be sure, you seem to be more clear about this in your seventh point. I was not totally able to follow your argument when you said, “The analogy does not mention the criterion for judging the quality of the clay; it speaks of the very nature with which the potter has endowed the clay.” However, I maintain that there is another very reasonable explanation that does not invoke the doctrine of election. The clay in verse 21 is Israel. Some of Israel will get it, God knows in advance and repent. Other parts of Israel will not, the common use clay. To a person who believed that clay was clay and if some of the clay was destined for glory all of the clay was destined for glory this would surely cause alarm (which I believe we agree about). As we both have said (I think) just because you’re in the nation of Israel doesn’t mean your the figurative Israel (children of the promise, saved people). So then there’s an obvious follow up question to this: if God was going to judge by this new criterion (faith in Christ) all along, why did He seem to act otherwise (as though Israel was going to be saved collectively as the chosen nation). This is the question that Paul anticipates in verses 22-24, not the question of why God is letting some poor souls live even though he sentenced them to damnation a billion years prior (what a terrible thought!). And he says, quite simply, this: “God put up with the Israelites who rejected Him for a long time because from the beginning He had a plan. By human standards, indeed, it was an unusual plan. The plan, revealed in Genesis 12, was to bring the whole world to salvation through faith in Christ, through the nation of Israel. This was the plan and God was going to stick to it, no matter what, even if a good chunk of Israel was disobedient. True, at various junctures he still chose to make his wrath and power known. There was the Babylonian captivity. The Israel/Judea split. Famines. Plagues. God surely let His power be known and don’t think otherwise. But He kept with the plan, and the plan was Israel as the vessel to bless the nations even though He knew from the beginning that the ultimate criterion for salvation was to be Christ, and if this was the ultimate criterion, much of Israel would be lost. But God was patient in order that all of the Gentiles would have the opportunity to be saved because, after all, God does want all people to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4 and several other places). To the Israelite who refuses to come to faith in Christ, it seems like a dastardly trick (“all along I thought I was in only to now find that I’m out?”) but if God wanted Christ to be the vehicle for salvation all along, who are we to question His judgment?”

        I want to add one more thing, this perhaps more important than everything else. John Wesley said, “Whatever that Scripture [viz., Romans 9] proves, it can never prove this. Whatever its true meaning be, this cannot be its true meaning. … No Scripture can mean that God is not love, or that his mercy is not over all his works. That is, whatever it prove beside, no Scripture can prove [unconditional, double] predestination.” Wesley is not being simple or silly here. He is simply saying: in light of the testimony of Scripture about God’s amazing love (which differs from ours infinitely in degree but not character) and in light of everything that Scripture teaches us about what love is, there is simply no way that Romans 9 can mean this, because it runs contrary to everything that God teaches me that love is. Shawn, if ten men were stuck in a raft headed over Niagara Falls and you had the possibility to save all ten, would you? “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” The Calvinist answers: But then why aren’t all men saved? Because what if you desired to save all ten men and threw your rope out to them (Christ) but some of them refused to grab hold, preferring instead to dabble in silly earthly things even if it meant going over the falls. As C.S. Lewis says, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”

        As Christians completely unworthy and yet still promised salvation, we find ourselves in the wildest and most magical of fairy tales. It is almost too good to be true (the Truth is just that good). Believing this, may we also have the faith to believe that God desires to save all but has, for reasons we cannot comprehend, allowed people to choose to reject Him.




        1. Hey Andy,
          This is turning out to be an epic, and I trust cordial, debate.

          (1) I don’t quite follow your argument that divine sovereignty/human responsibility antinomy is “completely against logic” and therefore not a “pure” paradox. I think the statement that God is Three and One, as well as the statement that Christ is God and Man are just as much “completely against logic.”

          (2) I’m afraid you’re misrepresenting my view. I would never say (nor would any other Reformed theologian for that matter), “It does not matter at all what you do, only what God does.” Negating the Great Commission is the last thing I want to do. In fact, I wrote this article to bolster the continuing relevance of the Great Commission in light of divine sovereignty. I’m not sure why you keep ignoring my point about human responsibility (both in my original post and in my comment). I’m saying that we need to maintain the tension rather than resolve it (in either direction).

          (3) Jesus did say, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them” (John 6:44). I think it follows, then, that God does not draw some people to Christ since not all are saved. Is your understanding of this verse different than mine?

          (4) Returning to Romans 9, the point is not individual vs. nation, but election vs. historical destiny. I never said in my fifth point, “It’s about individuals, not nations.” I said, “Romans 9 is talking about election and salvation rather than about national destiny.” I agree that Paul is referring to God’s elect (in a corporate sense), but that’s not the point. The issue is whether Paul’s talking about Israel’s election (for salvation) or Israel’s national destiny (in history). Contrary to your contention, I did NOT think that “the article interprets Paul as saying that you are saved if you are in the Isaac (Israeli) and not if you are Ishmael (Gentile) lineage.” I think the article contradicts itself: (1) It says that God’s covenant is spiritual, not physical. (2) Yet, it insists that God choosing Jacob over Esau does not pertain to election and salvation. I don’t think it’s possible to have it both ways. If the covenant is spiritual, then God’s covenant with Jacob is about election and salvation and not about the physical acquisition of land (as he says in the first paragraph under the heading “Individuals or Nations?”).

          (5) Using clear usages of certain words and phrases in another Pauline context to illuminate less clear usages of the same words and phrases in this particular Pauline context is a sound exegetical method, and, in my opinion, compelling.

          (6) Let me try to clarify my seventh point. If the Jewish indignation was “all along I thought I was in only to now find that I’m out,” then a more appropriate analogy would have been: “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why have you set me aside for common use? Did you not make me for special purposes?’ Does not the potter have the right to decide for what purpose he will use the clay vessel?” Do you follow what I’m saying? The analogy does not concern the criterion (Christ or physical lineage) by which the potter will determine which vessels will be for special or common use. Rather, it concerns the potter’s creative purpose (election or reprobation) in making some vessels for special use and others for common use. Do you see what I’m saying now?

          (7) I’m going to introduce one new point here. I don’t think it’s possible to say that God simply allows some people to reject him. In other words, I don’t think you can distinguish permissive will from decretive will when it comes to an omniscient and omnipotent being. When it comes to God, “permission” is every bit as much an action as “performance.” “People may give their permission through inadvertance or neglect or an unwillingness to take responsibility; but God cannot. His permission is ‘willing permission’” (Helm, p. 101).

          As for your concluding remarks, I am in complete agreement with you. I don’t deny that God is love and I don’t think the doctrine of unconditional election contradicts this truth (see below). I also agree with C.S. Lewis that “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” In fact, I refer to that quote regularly. I can say this because I do not believe that the doctrines of unconditional election and human responsibility are mutually exclusive. It’s an antinomy. As I say in my original post, I believe that election is unconditional, but salvation IS conditional. And this is indeed a mystery. I cannot explain how humans are responsible for their damnation yet God is totally responsible for their salvation. This is, as I say again and again, an antinomy. Maybe it’s helpful to note that God’s unconditional election is the primary cause which enables and sustains the secondary cause, namely people’s willful rejection of the gospel. If you hear me correctly, I don’t think you’ll find my view nearly as offensive as you find it.

          “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:13-15). Like Apostle Paul, I believe that I am the chief of sinners. I believe that not only grace was poured out on me, but also FAITH. This is what makes God’s love so amazing. He did not leave me to my foolish unbelief. He even gave me the faith to cling to Christ.

          Since you quote John Wesley, let me conclude by recounting a conversation that took place between him and a Calvinist named Charles Simeon (recorded in John Wesley’s journal on December 20th, 1784):
          “Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. … Pray, sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?’ ‘Yes,’ says the veteran, ‘I do indeed.’ ‘And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?’ ‘Yes, solely through Christ.’ ‘But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?’ ‘No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.’ ‘Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?’ ‘No.’ ‘What, then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?” “Yes, altogether.” “And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?” “Yes, I have no hope but in Him.” “Then, Sir, with your leave I will put my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree.”’

          In Christ,


          1. Hey y’all…so this popped up on my FB feed and I have thoroughly read and enjoyed both sides of the conversation. I’m not going to jump in with anything substantive because I’m supposed to be writing a legal paper right now, not a theology one. : ) But I was a little puzzled by your point (3) in this response, Shawn, discussing John 6:44: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them. I think it follows, then, that God does not draw some people to Christ since not all are saved.”

            That depends on how you define “draws them,” right? And I don’t mean to get us on a well-the-original-Greek-says rabbit trail (though if you have thoughts on that, feel free to share), but your take on that verse only seems to work if you take “draws them” to mean “compels them without choice.” If it’s anything less forceful than that, it doesn’t work; it’s akin to saying, “No one can [eat pizza] unless [I write their name down]. It follows, then, that [I didn’t write Andy’s name down] since [Andy didn’t eat pizza.]” Maybe Andy just didn’t want to eat pizza…?

            Which is not me trying to trivialize free will or predestination. It’s probably more important than pizza. But it does seem like your interpretation of that verse seems to be pre-determined (GET IT?) by your position on the Calvinist/Arminian spectrum, so maybe it’s not as straightforward as you suggested.

            Also, I love that Simeon/Wesley dialogue at the end. Okay that’s all.



            1. Hey Stephanie,

              Good to hear from you! I think your point is true for every case except when it deals with God. That’s because when it comes to an omniscient and omnipotent being, the distinction between permissive will and decretive will is artificial (point #7).

              With that said, my view allows both explanations: (1) “God did not write his name down” and (2) “He did not want God’s pizza.” The first is more fundamental, but the second is no less real. However, when dealing with an unbeliever, I would use explanation #2 (“don’t refuse this pizza it’s freely offered to you”) because that’s our experienced reality, rather than explanation #1 which is God’s transcendent reality.

              However, when I pray, I would pray in light of explanation #1 (“God, write this person’s name down” i.e. “God, save this person”) and appeal to God’s sovereignty, and not in light of #2 (“God, make this person crave pizza” i.e. “God, make the circumstances right so that this person will freely choose you.”).

              I think even most Arminians pray like #1 (I did when I was one) because when rubber meets the road we all believe in divine sovereignty. We just disagree on how to best express that reality.

              Even for the consistent few who might pray #2, how much “freedom” is there really given that God not only controls the environment but creates and constitutes us? It’s not simply setting a caged bird free but bringing the bird into being.

              Ultimately, unless you interpret “those whom God draws” as “everyone,” the scandal of unconditional election remains. The degree of divine influence is irrelevant, because God is still “drawing” (even if it’s not compulsive) some and not others.



  2. Hey Shawn,

    Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to my contentions. I apologize for the places where I poorly represented your argument. I’ll respond briefly (which likely means, if experience is any indication, not briefly at all) to each of your points and then highlight what seems to be the crux of the debate. You have my word that this is cordial. A debate is two people using one another to each move closer to the truth and not to prove the other wrong. I am assured that this is each of our intentions.

    1) I’m not sure my argument here was very compelling at all. I admit that I was shooting in the dark, trying to put words to what presented itself as a hunch in my brain. Indeed, Kierkegaard presents the God/man paradox as preeminent–for his this paradox is the central point of Christianity and the entry point to salvation. I like Kierkegaard and I’m disinclined to contest what he says on this matter (or what you say, more importantly). I suppose I was expressing nothing more than that the predestination/missions paradox violates my own sense of logic more than the other one’s do, and I wonder if this isn’t mostly true for everyone (believer, unbeliever) who isn’t from the Reformed tradition.

    2) I’ll come back to point two, because I think it’s the crux.

    3) I interpret John 6:44 similarly to Stephanie. This is the Arminian position of prevenient grace. I admit, as Wesley does in your quotation at the end, that God makes the first move. I was chosen by Him and I responded to being chosen by having faith. But of course I believe in resistible grace, so that God might draw someone else and they may not respond in faith (Stephanie makes this point much better than I). You and I both agree that God makes the first move, we disagree on how many people He makes this move toward and whether or not they can resist it.

    4) I did a poor job of representing what you were saying and I’m sorry for that. It was not so much willful as that I didn’t really understand your point, but I do after reading your second post. Thanks for the clarification. I still think, however, that you are missing what the article is saying, because I do not think that it contradicts itself. To get the article (and likely you are already doing this) you have to constantly come back to the fact that Romans 9-11 is Paul communicating to Jews who thought they were elect that they are not and later, what they must do if they are to become children of God (which is explained in Romans 10:9). I think we agree on this. The Jewish audience feels, however, that they have been duped. They thought that the Abrahamic convenant ensured their salvation. After all, they had repeatedly been blessed by God throughout history. This whole Christ thing is a real stumbling block to them because it runs against what they thought was true. Not so, says Paul. And here, and this is key, he responds to them with an argument from history, not a doctrinal position like predestination. He doesn’t say, no, God has been predestining some but not all individuals to salvation from amongst the people of Israel all along. He instead says, no, you can’t really believe that just being a flesh and blood child of Abraham is what it takes because Ishmael and his offspring (who you guys really don’t like) are also flesh and blood children of Abraham. Here the question of salvation is still open. Paul has not yet answered it, has simply said what salvation is not. Then he goes on in Romans 9:12 to further advance this point. Not only that, Paul says, here’s an even better example. Look at Jacob and Esau, they were from the same mother and same father, even born at the same time. If what you, Israelites, are saying is true, we would expect that both should have been blessed by God. But they have not both been blessed by God. God has chosen, for no reason other than His own plan for history, to bless one but not the other. Now, is the key point, and I understand it’s a bit murky and I’m not sure I totally understand it myself but I think this is what is true. Paul is still not talking about salvation. He is saying, throughout history, God has been blessing people according to a standard other than being a flesh and blood child of Abraham. Given that this is true, you should not be angry that God has chosen to bless the Gentiles here. This blessing may very well include salvation (in an eternal, heavenly sense). But, and you as a seminary graduate could speak to this much more accurately than me, it seems as though the Israelites are not so much upset that Gentiles are being given access to heaven when they themselves are not guaranteed it. After all, if I understand correctly, Old Testament Jews valued having God be their protector, their God, in this life, at least as much as they valued Him as their means of eternal bliss. The crazy thing that God is doing through Christ is not so much (for the Jews at least) saving Gentiles but including Gentiles in the covenantal promise. If, in a dispensational sense, God is from this point forward deciding to include people in the covenant on the basis of their belief in Christ and not Jewish lineage then, Paul says 1)This is his prerogative, who are you to talk back and 2)Jewish lineage, after all, has never been the deciding factor for covenantal inclusion. From this, Romans 9:25-10:21 makes a lot more sense, especially compared to the Calvinist position. It doesn’t involve antinomy. Rom. 9:33 is tangential under a Calvinist perspective because God is already a stumbling block to everyone he doesn’t elect, it would be ill-fitting to say that now that Christ has appeared, Jews are stumbling; anyone who wasn’t elected beforehand was going to stumble regardless of Christ. Verses like Romans10:9 and 10:21 no longer have to bear the burden of antinomy, they just make sense.

    5) I totally agree with you here, it is a sound exegetical method, and after re-reading my own argument, I cannot find anything which suggests that I believe otherwise. I think it’s a very good strategy, and it’s precisely the reason that the article refers to the passage from Galatians 4. In Galatians 4, it is much more clear that Paul is talking about Jewish vs. Gentile covenantal inclusion/disclusion, except that Galatians is written to a Gentile audience. So whereas Paul tells Jews in Romans 9 to not assume that they are in because they are Jewish, in Galatians 4 he urges Gentiles to not assume they are out because they are not Jewish. “Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.” The Gentile Galatians are God’s children through their faith in Christ; they need to claim this right and start living like it.

    6) Thanks for clarifying, I totally understand what you’re saying now. But it is still possible to support the Arminian view of Rom 9:21, I think. Hopefully I can clarify now. You are assuming that the hypothetical voice in this passage is an individual. Why, asks the individual, have you chosen to damn me? Scary question, right?! Let’s be real, it makes us cringe to think that someone would ever have to ask that question of God. Under this Calvinist reading, Paul answers, God can do whatever He pleases with your soul, don’t talk back. But what if the hypothetical voice is Israel, so that it is a plurality of potential voices which Paul represents as one speaker? In this case, the hypothetical voice wishes to know: all along you seemed to be grouping us as one, you called us by one name, you seemed to talk to us as one through the prophets? But if you really had a separate criterion for inclusion in the convenantal promise all along, why did you make me like this, one nation? To which Paul replies, “Isn’t that God’s prerogative, to use one nation, Israel, to accomplish different purposes, where some parts of Israel carry on the covenant (through faith in Christ) and others don’t (through disbelief).” To be fair, I’m having a tough time articulating this, and this could be wholly off. But I think it’s a fair interpretation in light of the rest of the passage.

    7) This is an interesting point, and to a small extent, I am compelled to agree. However, there is a distinction that may, depending on your view, be important. Under the Arminian view, God foresees all of humanity, and sees some willfully accepting and others willfully denying Christ. He looks at the scene and decides that though He wants all to be saved, and will do whatever it takes to save them (including sending His only son so that none will perish), there is one rule that He will play by: He will not violate their free will. This is His rule and you’re right, He could have not made it. But then something worse could’ve have happened, in God’s view: He would have people who loved HIm against their will or without their will. This was the worse solution. So He had to decide, knowing all of this, whether to create or not to create. As C.S. Lewis says in the Problem of Pain, this is a question we can never evaluate, whether it was better to create or not. We can only assume that it was better to create since God did. This is the world we find ourselves in. It is the best possible circumstance given that 1) God didn’t want coerced lovers and 2) He thought it better to create. As a result, God permits but of course does not will (in the sense of wanting it to happen) that some are damned, for His glory and the glory of those that will choose faith in Him (for both are mentioned in Scripture). God allows some to perish, and, in your vocabulary, makes it happen, but there was no other alternative. That is why God is still ultimately loving, more so than in the Calvinist interpretation (in my opinion).

    One addition: Painting in broad strokes, Calvinist’s often object that Arminian’s highlight God’s love but neglect His sovereignty. But 1) “God is love” is (debatably) the purest description of God in the Bible and 2) When Jesus, who is the exact representation of God (Heb. 1:3) came to earth, He often forsook His sovereignty for the sake of love, the ultimate example being His death on the cross, but there are many other such examples. The Beattitudes, His lowly circumstances, His service to others. He demonstrated that true power and sovereignty often comes from a position of weakness, not a position of control, or micro-managing, of forcing every detail, of wrecking everything that got in His way. We must always remember that this is what God is like when we talk about His sovereignty. It’s a very odd from of sovereignty, one that almost doesn’t fit the definition of the word, but then again, maybe we should redefine the word.

    Finally, the crux of our argument. You hold (at least I think) what metaphysics calls a compatibilist position–that free will and determinism are not mutually exclusive. I find compatibilism to be much like Derridean deconstruction, a lot of smoke and mirrors and wordplay, somewhat intellectually defensible but pragmatically speaking illogical and of very little use. William James called compatibilism “a quagmire of evasion”; Kant called it “wretched subterfuge” and “word jugglery”. I am of the same view. I find it incredibly hard to accept compatibilism, thus I find it very hard to accept not Calvinism (theologically), but Calvinism plus human agency, and since human agency seems self-evident to me, I disbelieve Calvinism. This is the lens I bring to Scripture. You bring a different one. To me, it seems this is the rub.

    Thanks again for your grace and careful consideration. Lest it be unclear, compatibilism may be “wretched subterfuge” in my eyes, but you are a good friend, an incredible leader, a faithful servant, a heckuva worship leader, and a beloved child of God.




    1. Hey Andy,
      Thanks for responding with grace and humility. I hope that I can do the same. It looks like we’ve clarified most of our points, so I’ll just respond to a few things:

      (4) I’m in agreement with pretty much everything you say in point #4. I can follow Paul’s logic and believe that your interpretation is correct all the way up to the sticking point, which is your statement that “Paul is still not talking about salvation. He is saying, throughout history, God has been blessing people according to a standard other than being a flesh and blood child of Abraham.” I’m still convinced that covenantal inclusion is not merely a “blessing,” but election and salvation, precisely because it is spiritual, and not physical, in nature. I think you’re closer to my view than the author of that article, since you’re willing to say that “this blessing may very well include salvation (in an eternal, heavenly sense).” If this blessing includes salvation, does it not follow, then, that Paul is saying: “God can save whomever he wishes, who are you to talk back to God?” As you have identified, this really is the crux. If we can’t agree here, I don’t think we’ll be able to land any further arguments.

      Also, as far as I can tell, the Calvinist understanding of Rom. 9:33 is the same as the Arminian understanding. Christ is the stumbling block because the Jews had put their hope in their physical lineage rather than in Christ. In my understanding, then, Romans 9:6-29 establishes that it is the children of promise who are saved, not the children by physical descent, and that it is God’s sovereign prerogative to “call” or “choose” these children of promise. Then, Paul explains in v. 30ff. who these “children of promise” are, namely those who have put their faith in Christ.

      (6) I can kind of see what you’re saying, but I find the “traditional” interpretation of the potter and the clay analogy tighter and more natural.

      (7) I understand C.S. Lewis’s classic argument for the necessity of free will in creation. However, since my view preserves human responsibility, there are no “coerced lovers.” Also, you did agree with me that the initiative lies with God. He makes the first move. However, if God acts on the basis of his foreknowledge of our disposition toward him, then the initiative really lies with us. God’s initiative may be chronologically prior, but it is not logically prior. In that sense, we are saved because we chose God, not because God chose us.

      Regarding your final point, I think it is dangerous to elevate one attribute of God as more fundamental or important than the other. Yes, “God is love,” but God is also “I Am who I Am” (see my original post on the significance of his name). Jesus humbled himself and took the very nature of a servant, but God never forsook his sovereignty. He was always in control, even when Christ died upon the cross. Furthermore, it is the holiness and just wrath of God that makes him so merciful. It’s because his wrath is so fully personal that his mercy in turning away his wrath is so personal. So I would like to affirm both divine sovereignty and human responsibility without subjecting one to the other.

      And I’m not a compatibilist, so no offense is taken. A compatibilist redefines “free will” to make it compatible with determinism. An antinomy, however, admits that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are apparently incompatible (though compatible in the transcendent will of God). A compatibilist position is imprecise on the boundaries of “free will” and on exactly what kind of “control” God exerts. I wouldn’t call it “wretched subterfuge,” but I do think it circumvents the main issue. Again, as I have said before, human agency seems self-evident to us because it is a part of our direct experience. I don’t think this gives us the warrant to disbelieve the sovereignty of God which is not a part of our direct experience.

      Let me reiterate my appreciation for your courage to stay true to your convictions and defend God’s honor when you feel that it has been assailed. That is, I believe, what I am trying to do as well, and on that point we are agreed. Even if we never see eye to eye on this issue, we already agree that human responsibility is important and that we are called to God’s work in missions. So I’m looking forward to co-laboring with you for his Kingdom. To God be all the glory, honor, and praise!



  3. Shawn and Andy — Kudos to you both — congenial and well thought out positions and in a very wonderful and intellectual spirit — I learned a lot from both of you
    This is EXACTLY the type of Christian banter we need more of.

    Bravo and graze


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