All Who Were Appointed to Eternal Life Believed

"When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48 NIV) The message the Gentiles heard was that they were being granted salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Hearing this (present active participle), they began rejoicing and began glorifying (imperfect active indicative) the word of the Lord. The conclusion: "and all who were appointed for eternal life believed." Has God predetermined who shall and who shall not believe?

The unfortunate answer for some is yes, God has predetermined who shall and who shall not believe, and this is predicated upon an eternal decree of His to unconditionally elect unto faith and salvation a minuscule subset of human beings (cf. Matt 7:13, 14). This passage is proffered as one such proof-text. Is this text warranted for such a use?

CONTEXT

Paul and his companions approached Pisidian Antioch and soon thereafter began preaching in the local synagogue. (Acts 13:14, 15) He was preaching to Jews and to Gentiles "who worship God" (Acts 13:16). He noted that God had chosen the people of Israel and prospered them (Acts 13:17), had patience with their errant ways (Acts 13:18), and gave them their homeland (Acts 13:19). Recounting Jewish history, briefly, he then speaks about Jesus: "God raised him from the dead so that he will never be subject to decay." (Acts 13:34) The conclusion of His message was that "through Jesus forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses." (Acts 13:38, 39) Everyone who believes will be saved. What he did not say here is that everyone who has been foreordained for eternal life are those who will believe and thus be saved.

Paul then warned these Jews and Gentiles: "Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you: 'Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.'" (Acts 13:40, 41) The people requested that Paul and Barnabas speak further on the following Sabbath, and then they began urging the disciples to continue in the grace of God. (Acts 13:42, 43)

The following Sabbath nearly the whole city, mixed with believing and unbelieving Jews and believing and unbelieving or pagan Gentiles, gathered to hear the word of the Lord (Acts 13:44). But when some of the unbelieving Jewish leaders learned of this, they "were filled with jealously. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him." (Acts 13:45) Paul and Barnabas then address this group of unbelieving Jewish leaders. Boldly Paul speaks: "We had to speak the word of God to you first [cf. Matt. 15:21-28; John 4:22; Rom. 1:16; 2:9, 10; 9:24]. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: 'I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'" (Acts 13:46, 47)

Note, though, that Paul and others "returned again and again to the Jews of the synagogues after this date."1 (cf. Acts 14:1; 17:1, 10, 17; 18:4, 7, 8, 19, 26; 19:8) God had not declared through Paul and Barnabas that the Jewish people or any other person was now excluded by divine fiat from salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. But the order of who should hear the Gospel of Christ had been fulfilled: salvation is of the Jew (John 4:22), and is first preached to the Jew, and then to the Gentile (cf. Matt. 15:21-28; Rom. 1:16).

God's plan from long ago was to offer salvation to all people: Jews and Gentiles. He promised to save the one who continues to believe in Christ for salvation (1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Heb. 7:25). "When the Gentiles heard this," from Paul and his companions, "they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed." (Acts 13:48) What is Luke communicating regarding the last part of that sentence?

WORD-STUDY: APPOINTED, DISPOSED, PUT IN ORDER: τάσσω

Word-order in Greek is not always an exact science, as all Greek scholars admit. The last section of Acts 13:48 in Greek reads, in order: καὶ ἐπίστευσαν ὅσοι ἦσαν τεταγμένοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον, translated in order, "and believed as many as were appointed/arranged/drawn up in order [lit.] into/to life eternal." The aorist active indicative translated "believe," ἐπίστευσαν, is usually placed last in the sentence, suggesting that faith in Christ is the result of some having been "ordained," "appointed," "disposed toward" or "arranged" to life eternal, rather than the notion that those who believed were appointed for eternal life. The reason is simple: the act of τάσσω, being disposed toward or arranged in order to receive life eternal, precedes the response of faith. Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers argues:
The words seem to the English reader to support the Calvinistic dogma of divine decrees as determining the belief or unbelief of men, and it is not improbable, looking to the general drift of the theology of the English Church in the early part of the seventeenth century, that the word "ordained" was chosen as expressing that dogma. It runs, with hardly any variation, through all the chief English versions, the Rhemish giving the stronger form "pre-ordinate."

The Greek word, however, does not imply more than that they fell in with the divine order which the Jews rejected. They were as soldiers who take the place assigned to them in God's great army. The quasi-middle force of the passive form of the verb is seen in the Greek of Acts 20:13, where a compound form of it is rightly rendered "for so he had appointed," and might have been translated for so he was disposed. (link)
The case for the word τεταγμένοι, from τάσσω, being translated as "appointed," "disposed," or, perhaps, "arranged in order,"2 is a strong one, given that its use elsewhere does not wear the clothing of any subject being preordained for salvation to one degree or another. Thayer takes the same vein on the Greek word τάσσω in this manner as well. (link) Biblehub grants: "tássō ('place in position, post') was commonly used in ancient military language for 'designating' ('appointing, commissioning') a specific status, i.e. arranging (placing) in a deliberate, fixed order." (link)

F. Leroy Forlines notes the construction of the words ἦσαν (lit. "to be") τεταγμένοι (appointed, disposed or placed in line or order), admitting that the expression is "what is called in the Greek a periphrastic pluperfect construction. The literal meaning would be 'as many as were having been appointed to eternal life believed.'"3 In other words, the expression
does not require that this appointment to eternal life must be a reference to eternity past. I think what the verse is telling us is that all of those who had been saved prior to their hearing the New Testament gospel subsequently believed when they heard the gospel being presented by Paul and Barnabas. At the moment of their salvation in the past, they were appointed to eternal life. When they heard about the redemptive work of Jesus the Messiah, they believed and became New Testament believers.4
What Dr. Forlines is referring to, by some people being "saved" prior to the hearing of the Gospel, he explains previously regarding "devout men" or "God-fearers" who learned of the God of Israel at the synagogue from Jewish people during a "transition period" between the Old and New Testaments. Their faith was in YHWH, the God of the Israelites, and were considered "saved" by the Hebrew covenant, as was Abraham (Rom. 4:3, 4, 5, 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24). What is most significant from Forlines' section, however, is his emphasis on the Greek construction: we need not anchor the assigning to eternal life to an arbitrary or unconditional decree from eternity past to save some and not others. That is an a priori notion based on eisegesis.


Moreover, one might wonder as to the seemingly gratuitous nature of God's warning through Paul at Acts 13:40, 41, quoting Habakkuk 1:5, if a divine passive and God's über-irresistible will and decree take precedence over every minutiae of our existence, including faith. Can one actually heed a warning from God if He has already decreed the person not to heed the warning? William MacDonald insists that there "is no hint of determinism in such an admonition."5 He also argues that the verb τάσσω refers to appointing "in the literal sense of 'put in a position for,' or 'order;'" and that the Jewish leaders were rejecting the Gospel while the Gentiles were "lining up" for the blessings of God in Christ.6 Those who were next in order for eternal life believed.

We find our word τάσσω at Romans 13:1: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted [τεταγμέναι] by God." (NRSV) The authorities that exist are drawn up (a perfect passive participle) and arranged in order by God. There is no hint here of salvific foreordination. We find our word again at 1 Corinthians 16:15: "Now, brothers and sisters, you know that members of the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves [ἔταξαν ἑαυτούς] to the service of the saints." The action here of the converts "devoting themselves" to the service of the saints is derived from no outside, pre-ordained plan or decree of God, and thus we find no hint of salvific foreordination.

We find our perfect passive indicative again at Acts 22:10: "I asked, 'What am I to do, Lord'? The Lord said to me, 'Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned [τέτακται] to you to do." Again, words so easily attached to the doctrine of salvation -- words such as "foreordained," "predestined," "elected" -- do not properly belong to the use of τάσσω and its cognates (cf. Matt. 28:16; Acts 15:2; 20:13; 28:23). There is no hint in any other biblical reference of τάσσω concerning salvific foreordination. Why, then, would anyone attach such a notion to the word at Acts 13:48? Since this is the uncontested truth, then, what can or should we confess with regard to the passage found at Acts 13:48? What is the correlation between eternal life and belief? Does one primarily cause the other?

INTERPRETATION 

First, had Luke intended to convey that those who had been unconditionally elected unto faith and salvation are those who believed that day, then he would have used the appropriate Greek language. Certainly, this educated man could have informed us that those whom God unconditionally ἐξελέξατο (elected) or unconditionally προορίσας (predestinated) to eternal life believed, but he did not. Second, contextually, his address immediately regarded the unbelieving Jewish leaders. These are the ones he counted as considering themselves unworthy of eternal life (Acts 13:46) -- not that God found them unworthy of being saved, since no one is inherently worthy of being saved -- but that, by their own stubborn unbelief, they assume themselves unworthy of His gift of eternal life.

One might well ask, "Who is worthy of eternal life?" According to Scripture, believers are worthy of eternal life (Luke 20:35; 2 Thess. 1:5, 11) because the One to whom they belong is inherently worthy. Jesus Himself, the only worthy man (Rev. 5:9, 12), claims that believers are worthy of walking with Him in paradise (Rev. 3:4). He claims that those who truly love Him, bear His cross, and follow Him are worthy of Him (Matt. 10:37, 38). Those who reject Him, however, are not worthy (Matt. 22:8). Hence we are called to live lives worthy of His great grace and salvation (Eph. 4:1; Phil. 1:27; Col. 1:10; 1 Thess. 2:12).

A promise is granted to the believer: the one who believes in Christ alone and continues in that belief to the end, this one will be saved (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20). God does not save unbelievers (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13). Does God know those who belong to Him? Yes, He does (2 Tim. 2:19), and He has always known those who would ultimately be His (Rom. 8:29, 30). But has He determined who shall and who shall not believe and thus be saved? We do not believe such a doctrine.

Eternal life is mentioned twice in our brief passage, first at Acts 10:46, when some of the Jewish leaders rejected the Gospel, and then at Acts 10:48, when some were noted as being recipients of eternal life. The former group rejected the Gospel and judged themselves to be unworthy of salvation and eternal life. A similar notion was made by Luke in his own Gospel regarding some of the unbelieving Jewish leaders: "But by refusing to be baptized by him [John the baptizer], the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God's purpose [βουλὴν] for themselves." (Luke 7:30) So, God's good and gracious purpose for someone can be rejected, and thus all of God's blessings that could be obtained can be forfeited. Many of the Jewish leaders discovered this truth for themselves at the preaching of Paul at Acts 13:46.

God's "purpose," βουλὴν, for the Jewish leaders, as well as for everyone else, is salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Otherwise Luke could never have made such a statement at Luke 7:30. For if God's βουλὴν is irresistible, and all that happens is manifest due to this βουλὴν, then Luke's statement is rendered senseless. How could God's βουλὴν be rejected by those controlled and governed by that same βουλὴν? If every event comes to fruition by God's foreordained βουλὴν, then God's βουλὴν for the unbelieving Pharisees was to actually remain in that unbelief. We cannot escape this logical truth.

God's βουλὴν, translated as "purpose," "counsel," or "plan," is also used at Ephesians 1:11 and 2 Peter 3:9 (cf. θέλει, "purpose," "will," "wish," at 1 Timothy 2:4). In the former passage we find God working "all things according to his counsel [βουλὴν] and will." Even so, God's βουλὴν can be rendered ineffective by the sinfulness of free people. In the latter passage we find God βουλόμενος, not wishing for condemnation but for salvation. He declares the same to His prophet Ezekiel (Ezek. 18:23; 33:11). God's βουλὴν -- His purpose, wish, will, desire -- is to save, and to save by grace those who believe in Christ. Those who reject this βουλὴν are not worthy of eternal life. Those who receive and accept this βουλὴν are disposed toward or established for eternal life.

Are believers not, in some sense, foreordained, disposed toward, and established by God for eternal life? We believe so (Rev. 13:8; 17:8). Meyer's New Testament Commentary states:
[T]he object of his remark [Paul's remark at Acts 13:48] is not to teach a doctrine, but to indicate a historical sequence. Indeed, the evident relation, in which this notice stands to the apostle's own words, ἐπειδὴ . . . ζωῆς (Acts 13:46), rather testifies against the conception of the absolute decree [of unconditional election and reprobation], and for the idea, according to which the destination of God does not exclude (cf. Acts 2:41) individual freedom. (link)
In other words, a person believes by the aggressive, gracious work of the Holy Spirit and not because he or she was unconditionally foreordained to the belief itself. The Expositor's Greek Testament maintains:
[T]here is no countenance here for the absolutum decretum of the Calvinists, since Acts 13:46 had already shown that the Jews had acted through their own choice. The words are really nothing more than a corollary of St. Paul's ἀναγκαῖον: the Jews as a nation had been ordained to eternal life [emphasis added] -- they had rejected this election -- but those who believed amongst the Gentiles were equally ordained by God to eternal life, and it was in accordance with His divine appointment that the Apostles had turned to them. Some take the word as if middle, not passive: "as many as had set themselves unto eternal life," and in support of this Rendall refers to 1 Corinthians 16:15, ἔταξαν ἑαυτοὺς (see also Blass, in loco). (link)
Others, obviously, disagree with this interpretation, the late Presbyterian theologian Albert Barnes, for example. While he rejects the translation of "as many as had set themselves unto eternal life," he also notes that τάσσω "does not properly refer to an eternal decree, or directly to the doctrine of election -- though that may be inferred from it; but it refers to their being then in fact disposed to embrace eternal life. They were then inclined by an influence from without themselves, or so disposed as to embrace eternal life." (link) We heartily Amen! Barnes' notion that every influence toward spiritual realities in Christ are influenced from outside ourselves; and that we are disposed to embrace the Gospel and eternal life only by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit, through faith in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

CONCLUSION

Whatever we claim regarding a proper interpretation of Acts 13:48, may we always grant honor to whom honor is due. In this case, all honor belongs to God, since His prevenient grace is the sufficient cause of our faith; and only by His grace and strength do we possess and ultimately gain eternal life. We know as an uncontested fact that τάσσω does not refer to -- nor are we permitted to make inference toward the notion of -- an unconditional decree of God to bestow faith and salvation on some and not others. We also know that God's purpose is to save by His grace those who believe in Christ His Son.

Moreover, we know that God's purpose can be rejected, and those who reject it are counted unworthy of eternal life. Those who receive and accept God's salvific purpose are counted worthy of eternal life. Furthermore, He has always known, from eternity past, those who belong to Him, as well as those who would not. These are basic facts upon which we must draw our conclusions of a proper interpretation of the passage. Therefore, the believing ones are those who were disposed toward or appointed for eternal life, viewed, from an historical stance, as those "who were appointed for eternal life believed" in Jesus Christ.

__________

1 E.H. Trenchard, "Acts," in The International Bible Commentary with the New International Version, ed. F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 1291.

2 A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, third edition, revised and edited by Frederick William Danker (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), 991.

3 F. Leroy Forlines, Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation, ed. J. Matthew Pinson (Nashville: Randall House Publications, 2011), 165.

4 Ibid. He concludes: "I would also like to point out that, in so far as the wording is concerned, it could be possible for Acts 13:48 to refer to an appointment made in eternity past. However, there is a problem for those who hold that position. The verse says, 'As many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.' If it is a reference to an unconditional appointment in eternity past, it would then mean that of the group present that day 'as many as' or 'all among them' that would ever be saved were saved on that occasion. I would doubt that those who believe in unconditional election believe that. It is hard to believe that, of that group, from among those who did not get saved on that occasion no one ever got saved later." (165-66)

5 William G. MacDonald, "The Biblical Doctrine of Election," in The Grace of God and the Will of Man, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1995), 227.

6 Ibid. 

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.