Grant Osborne: Exegetical Notes on Calvinist Texts

In this post, part one of two parts, Arminian scholar Dr. Grant Osborne addresses certain proof texts which Calvinists use to support their theology. I offer posts such as this one because some readers do not have access to these materials, or may be unaware of these resources, and can both learn and grow thereby. My hope is that no one will think that I am posting them because I have nothing to say. Posts such as this one actually take more effort to produce, even though I am merely transcribing words -- they take much more time, and are very hard on my eyes. In a statement: When I make posts like this one, they come at a price to me. Therefore, I pray that they will be useful to others.

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Many of the difficulties between Arminianism and Calvinism would disappear if scholars were to abandon the common practice of "proof texting." The problem is that, in the past, systematic theology has by and large taken passages out of context, grouped them together in a logical order, and in many cases made them say things not intended by the original authors. This error is common to both sides in the debate. The answer is to be found in the methods of biblical theology, whereby we take every passage in its own context and interpret it in light of the author's intended meaning. We do not place a verse from John next to a verse from Hebrews and interpret one by the other; rather we allow John to speak for himself and the writer to the Hebrews to speak for himself.

For this reason, we are not going to arrange the discussion according to theological categories (i.e., according to the so-called "five points") but rather according to [a particular biblical] book, and we hope to shed new light on the subject in this way. For those who are interested in the "five points," however, we will provide a "key" to the passages below, arranging the verses systematically: 


  • Total depravity -- John 6:44, 65; Rom. 3:9-12; 1 Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2:1-3; 4:17-19;
  • Unconditional election -- John 6:35-40; 15:16; Rom. 8:28-30, 33; Eph. 1:3-12; 1 Pet. 1:1, 2; 2:8, 9; Phil. 2:12, 13;
  • Limited atonement -- John 6:35-40; 10:14-18, 24-29; 17:1-11; Rom. 5:32-34;
  • Irresistible grace -- Matt. 11:25-27; 13:10-16; John 6:44-45, 64-65; Acts 13:48; Eph. 2:8, 9; Rom. 8:30;
  • Perseverance (final) of the saints -- John 10:27-30; Rom. 8; Phil. 1:6 (1 Cor. 1:7-9); Eph. 4:30; 1 Pet. 1:3-5.

I. THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS

Here, of course, we will be considering the Logia Jesu [a collection of Jesus-sayings known among scholars as the Q source] as these shed light on the relationship between sovereignty and responsibility in salvation. At the outset, we would note that Jesus reacted against the Jewish stress on responsibility and so emphasized the divine activity in salvation. However, this must be interpreted in light of his eschatology, which contained both elements. The future aspects of the kingdom called for responsibility and perseverance (Matt. 6:33; 24:13; Luke 18:29ff.), and the present aspects were grounds for security (Matt. 11:25ff.; 13:10ff.).

The answer is then to be found in this tension between the present possession and the future hope regarding salvation, which reflects the eschatological tension between the already and the not yet throughout Jesus' teaching and the New Testament as a whole. As Marshall says, "As far as the outlook of Jesus is concerned, entry to the kingdom of God is something which takes place in the future, although men can participate in the blessings of the kingdom." It is in this light that we must interpret the evidence.

Matthew 11:25-27 -- This passage, paralleled by Luke 10:21-22, is used by many Calvinists to teach a combined doctrine of [unconditional] election and irresistible grace. Here it is said that "God makes known to His [unconditionally] chosen ones the secrets of the kingdom through the inward personal revelation given by the Spirit," and that therefore this revelation has the divine seal. Those to whom "the Son chooses to reveal" (Matt. 11:27) the Father are given a special inward call which they cannot resist. This passage is indeed important for an understanding of Jesus' unique sonship and parallels the many statements in the Johannine corpus that the only true revelation of the Father comes through the Son. The election motif is an important element in the theology of Jesus and transforms the corporate identity of Israel's view to the individual thrust of Jesus' view (note the "anyone" of Matt. 11:27).

Nevertheless, we must ask exactly what this doctrine entailed. Does it mean that God irresistibly draws to himself those he [unconditionally] chooses [to save] and guarantees their salvation? This is certainly not the emphasis here, for Jesus centers on the revelation aspect, not the election aspect, of salvation. The latter doctrine is used by Jesus to stress the redemptive activity of God, and the place of the Son as the means of the effective outworking of that divine plan. Therefore, election is taught in this passage [but not of the "unconditional election of only some" variety, and] . . . irresistible grace is not.

Matthew 24:24 -- The Olivet Discourse is the only place in the Gospels where "elect" is used of Jesus' followers (cf. Mark 13:20, 22, 27; Luke 18:7; also Matt. 24:22, 31), and so it is important to understand Jesus' use of the title here [and "the elect" is a title -- it is a title for those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ and belong to God: they are the chosen, or choice, ones]. In the Old Testament the title is used to designate the people of God (Ps. 105:6, 43; Isa. 65:9ff.), and many scholars have noted that in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, election "is conditional upon (one's) desire to retain it," i.e., that God's choice of a person does not occur irrespective of his will and does not guarantee that he will never deny God's gift of salvation. This certainly seems to be indicated here, where Christ warns that the deception of the Antichrist will be so severe that "if possible, even the elect" will apostatize. The interpretation hinges on the meaning of "if possible," which many say teaches the impossibility of leading the elect astray. However, this need not be true; in fact, the force of Mark 13:13 and Matt. 24:13 provides the crux interpretum [ultimate or crucial interpretation] for the passage, indicating that some will fail to "endure to the end," i.e., be "led astray." [emphasis added]

It is difficult to make a case that the context of Mark 13:13 does not indicate true believers, since Christ was talking to the disciples. Dispensational Calvinists argue that the passage speaks about Israel in the tribulation period and so cannot be applied to believers now. However, this fails to consider the constant emphasis throughout the New Testament on the church as New Israel. It would be difficult to show that all Jesus' teachings to the disciples applied only to Israel, not the church. 

While this passage does apply to the specific conditions of the final tribulation, it applies to general problems believers have faced in every general "tribulation" and must teach a genuine danger for the believer. Mark 13:13, then, takes "salvation" in the same sense as the writer to the Hebrews, as expressing the final gift of salvation rather than the present possession of eternal life. . . . It is interesting here to note the other synoptic parallel to Mark 13:13 -- Luke 21:18, 36 -- which stresses security in the midst of endurance. The danger is real, but Christ here promises God's protection; yet that protection can only be realized via prayer and perseverance. The security makes the danger slight, but it is nevertheless a real warning.

II. THE JOHANNINE CORPUS

The theme of all these writings is redemptive history, with the Gospel representing (from John's viewpoint) the past basis, the Epistles [representing] the present application, and the Apocalypse [representing] the future hope. The Gospel, even more than Paul, stresses divine sovereignty in salvation. Here Jesus is seen, even more than in the synoptics, to be the sovereign over history, and God's salvation plan is assured. Numerous passages in John stress this crucial element in salvation, stating that men come only when drawn to Christ by him. These provide the strongest New Testament evidence for the Calvinist claim that God's salvation is final, achieved by his sovereign [unconditional] choice, and so is ultimately guaranteed to the [unconditionally] elect.

[Loraine] Boettner [1901-1990], for instance, believes that there is a dualism of mankind into two separate classes, the elect and the non-believers, and that there can be no cross-over between those two distinct divisions, i.e., the unconverted [or those whom God has not unconditionally elected -- a notion found in neither John nor any of the other authors of Christian scripture] cannot become elect. However, this is certainly not true for John. One of the major characteristics which distinguishes John from the synoptics lies in his dualism; in the synoptics it is horizontal (i.e., this age vs. the age to come), but in John it is vertical (heavenly vs. earthly). Thus there is no true ground for Boettner's horizontal view in John. 

This is best seen in a study of κόσμος [world] in the fourth Gospel. The "world" is pictured as mankind in general (John 7:24; 12:19, etc.) and is seen in a twofold relation to Christ. Primarily it denotes those who have rebelled against God (John 17:25) and have followed their "ruler," Satan (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11); as such it is dominated by wickedness (John 7:7) and has rejected Jesus (John 1:10) and his disciples (John 15:18; 17:14). On the other hand, however, it is still the object of God's love (John 3:16) and salvation (John 3:17; 12:41), and Jesus came to provide life for it (John 1:29; 6:33). The disciples are to continue Jesus' salvific mission to the world (John 17:17-19). Therefore, the dualism which Boettner theorizes is simply not true. There is a dynamic relation between the world and the believer, and it is possible to move from one to the other. Let us look at the key passages for Johannine soteriology.


John 6:35-40, 44-45, 64-65 -- The question here is not whether this passage teaches divine sovereignty in the salvific decision but rather what this means. In this passage three Calvinist doctrines are discovered -- predestination [i.e., unconditional election], irresistible grace, and eternal security. Murray sees in this passage a progressive development -- they will not be cast out, they were given, they will not be lost, they will be raised up at the last day -- and asserts that [unconditional] election is the basis for the believer's final perseverance. The theme of God "drawing" the [unconditionally] elect to Jesus in John 6:44 and their "coming" to Jesus in John 6:45 seems to reinforce this by stressing the sovereign power behind that "inevitable decision." [Leon] Morris points out that the verb έκλύω [choose, chosen] here implies resistance to the drawing power, but that there is no instance in the New Testament where that resistance is successful. "Always the drawing power is triumphant, as here." The same thought is expressed in John 6:64, 65, which say no one comes unless the Father gives him the ability to do so; "left to himself the sinner prefers his sin."

While there is some truth to the above statements, they for the most part neglect John's other emphasis, man's responsibility. In each of the above passages this is forcefully brought out. John 6:37-40 are based upon John 6:35, where we see that eternal life is dependent on coming and believing. Moreover, the present tenses of the participles indicate it does not speak about a crisis faith-decision but rather about persevering in those two states [a fact often neglected by Calvinist scholars]. As Brown says, "The stress in John 6:37 that God destines men to come to Jesus does not in the least attenuate the guilt in John 6:36 of those who do not believe . . . with all John's insistence on man's choosing between light and darkness, it would be nonsense to ask if the evangelist believed in human responsibility." This is not to denigrate the strong emphasis on the sovereign will in this passage; it is rather to point out that the sovereign force considers human responsibility before moving.

There are four major words in these three sections of John 6, organized into two sets of synonymous pairs -- drawing = giving and coming = believing. They illustrate the two sides of the salvific act, God's part in drawing, man's part in coming. Here we must ask if God's drawing determines man's coming and if man's coming thereby is an act apart from the decision of his will. In John 6:44 this certainly seems to be the case, but the verse must be taken in light of John's entire "draws" theology, which stresses the attraction itself, not the certainty of it. In John 12:32, Jesus says that as a result of his death, he will "draw all men" to himself. In itself, then, it does not teach irresistible grace but rather God's universal salvific love [offering salvation to all who will, by His grace, trust in Jesus Christ His Son]. 

Moreover, the context of those verses presupposes responsibility, for John 6:45 says that only those who have "heard and learned" will "come" to Christ. As Marshall concludes:
The purpose of the predestinarian language in John is not to express the exclusion of certain men from salvation because they were not chosen by the Father . . . but to emphasize that from start to finish eternal life is the gift of God and does not lie under the control of men. A person who tries to gain eternal life on his own terms will find himself unable to come to Jesus because it has not been granted to him [to approach Jesus in such an unwarranted and arrogant manner] by the Father (John 6:65); he has in fact been resisting the leading of the Father.
John 10:11, 14-18, 27-30 -- John 10:11, 14-18 are used along with Mark 10:45 as primary texts for the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement. Many assert that Christ died for "many" not all and for "the sheep" not those who are wolves, etc. This is especially seen in comparison with passages like "you are not my sheep" and "you are from your father, the devil." However, this is to misunderstand Jesus' teaching here. The primary principle for interpreting any parabolic saying is that one must not go beyond the central teaching . . .; especially, one must not base doctrines on what it does not say. 

Here Jesus is teaching about his death, not the efficacy of it; in this context he could hardly have said he laid down his life for all the animals! This must be interpreted in light of the other Johannine passages which connect Jesus' death with "all" or with the "world" (John 1:12, 29; 3:16; 12:32). In short, Jesus here teaches that he shows his love for his sheep by dying for them but nowhere limits his death to them alone. To use his imagery, he died so that "all" may become "sheep." Calvinists who argue it is sufficient for all but efficient only for some are correct, but the criterion for the latter group is not a rigid predestination [i.e., the novel theory of unconditional election], as we have just argued, but rather the faith-decision of the individual. This, in fact, is the central theme of the fourth Gospel. 

John 10:27-30 are the major proof texts for eternal security, since it in a sense promises the double protection of the believer by both Christ and the Father. As Boettner argues, this grounds security in God's omnipotence and in effect removes the believer from ultimate spiritual peril. Calvinists base their interpretation on three points here: the presence of eternal life (cf. John 5:24), the phrase "shall never perish" (with the emphatic οὐ μή [never, never]), and the promise of God's omnipotent protection (cf. Col. 3:3). The result is that nothing can remove the believer from his [unconditionally] elect position.

To understand the thrust here we must identify the theological meaning given to "eternal life" in the fourth Gospel. [Note the particular manner in which Dr. Osborne assumes an overall biblical theological hermeneutic rather than the proof-texting model of Calvinist scholars, which, in condordance-like method, traces words and phrases throughout the Christian scriptures, and harmonizes them into an erroneous systematic theology; thus assuming that each author uses words and phrases in exactly the same manner, and are thinking in exactly the same vein, which is, all-too-conveniently, Calvinistic.] John stresses the realized aspect and makes it a present possession secured under the power of God. The verses herein are a part of that present thrust. 

Nonetheless, there is a future aspect to the gift of salvation, and it must be secured by perseverance. This has been noted in John 6:35, 45 and is seen in the present tense verbs of John 6:27, "hearing," "knowing," and "following." To be sure, these are not conditions for salvation in this context (contra [Robert] Shank), but they are conditions in light of John's total theology. This is especially seen in the vine and branches mashal [a short parable with a moral lesson] of John 15:1-7. There we are told that those branches which stop abiding in the vine and cease bearing fruit will wither, be stripped from the vine, and be thrown aside for burning. In spite of all attempts to assert otherwise, this gives a valid warning to the believer regarding the consequences of failure to "abide" in him. So we can conclude that while eternal life is a present possession, it is not a future certainty. [emphasis added] One must add perseverance to the security [as did Jesus, cf. Matt. 24:13] before one can be certain of that future attainment.

Marshall in this respect notes the Johannine themes of discipleship and faith, one continuing to abide and having a dynamic inward relationship to Christ, the other having a superficial relationship to Christ and only a partial faith. However, we must note that John nowhere denies that this partial faith is real. In fact, the close connection between partial faith and John's signs theology (cf. John 2:23-25; 10:38; 14:11) shows there is validity in it. 

Jesus' works are insufficient in themselves to produce faith but can become a valid first step to an understanding of Jesus' person. The best example of this is Judas. While many have noted that he is called a "betrayer" in John 6:64 long before his actual act of betrayal, we may note that this is an editorial aside which looked ahead to what Judas would become (not what he was then). The significant phrase is found in John 17:12, which says, "I kept them [the twelve disciples, including Judas] in your name, whom you gave me; I have guarded them, and none of them is lost but the son of perdition." [emphases added] Here we have some of the major terms of security -- "given," "kept," "guarded" -- used with relation to Judas, who was "lost."

John 17:1-26 -- Christ's intercessory prayer here (and his present intercession mentioned in Heb. 7:24, 25) is said to be evidence for the final perseverance of the [unconditionally] elect. Jesus' prayer here is justly labelled his "high priestly prayer," for he both consecrates his coming sacrifice and intercedes on behalf of the people. It may be divided into three sections: (1) prayer for glory, John 17:1-8; (2) prayer for the disciples, John 17:9-19; and (3) prayer for future believers, John 17:20-26. [Lewis Sperry] Chafer [1871-1952] notes two themes as indicative of security -- the intensity of Christ's love and his dependence on the Father's protective power. [Robert] Gromacki finds the presence of security in the stress on Christians as (1) gifts to the Son, John 17:2, 6, 9, 11, 12, 24; (2) possessions of the union between Father and Son, John 17:9-10; (3) possessing eternal life, John 17:2; and (4) objects of Christ's prayer for their preservation, John 17:11, and eternal dwelling, John 17:24. 

However, again we must ask what this is really saying. Certainly Christ's prayer is given entirely with the disciples in mind. Even the prayer for glory (John 17:1-5) is given not for his own sake but that his followers may have life (John 17:2). Security is indeed the teaching; the divine name is pledged as the basis of the disciples' protection (John 17:12). Nevertheless, we must continue to remember that security does not mean an absolute guarantee. In the same context with the promise of protection (John 17:12) we have the example of danger. In itself, of course, we dare not make too much of Judas, for some have called him "the exception which proves the rule." However, the conclusion here fits the data noted above. 

In conclusion, John's major emphasis is definitely upon sovereignty and security. However, this does not contradict the doctrine of perseverance; rather it strengthens it by adding the aspect of God's promises and aid in accomplishing it. It is certainly "not by might, nor by power, but by his Spirit," but this is the promise side of the perseverance, not the totality of perseverance. . . .

III. THE BOOK OF ACTS

Several passages in Acts seem to teach the doctrine of unconditional election and indicate to many that Luke had a predestinarian theology. Acts, like John, defines the basic message of Christ and the church as one of salvation. The basic events all relate to the soteriological message of the church, as the followers of Jesus fulfilled his commands and promises relating to mission. In relating this, Luke in Acts is careful to show that all was accomplished under divine impetus and occurred as part of his redemptive plan. It is God who at each critical node intervenes directly to guide the church in its salvific purpose (cf. Acts 1:8, 24ff.; 5:19ff.; 8:26ff.; 9:3ff.; 10:10ff.; 13:2ff.; 15:7ff.; 16:9ff.; 16:25ff.). So God is the prime mover in salvation for man, and this leads to those verses which seem to extend this to a predestinarian salvation:

Acts 11:18 -- This verse culminates the Cornelius episode (Acts 10) and Peter's report to the "apostles and brethren" (Acts 11:1-17); they concluded, "Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance unto life." Here, God is the principal actor in redemption (cf. Acts 5:31), but we must ask whether this is an unconditional choice on his part, and whether man's volition [free, or freed, will] plays a part. The passage, of course, does not say, but there is some evidence that the latter is more probable. Cornelius was a "God-fearer" (Acts 10:2), a Gentile who worshiped God but had not taken the final step of circumcision. As such he was a "devout man" and was open to God's call [all this, mind you, prior to his regeneration!].

Acts 13:48 -- Here is the major election passage in Acts; Luke here says of the Gentiles in Antioch of Pisidia, "As many as were ordained to eternal life believed." Calvinist theologians say the force of "ordained" here dare not be toned down; election must precede man's faith and form the basis for it. However, while we agree that the basic thrust is divine election, this does not negate the presence of human volition, as seen in the context. The preceding passage, especially Acts 10:46, notes the responsibility inherent in salvation. There the unbelieving Jews were rejected on the basis of their personal decision: by their action they "judged themselves unworthy" in the presence of God. The best thrust for the perfect passive "have been ordained" is that combination of divine election and human volition which has already been noted in John, with stress on the former aspect here. 

This is especially seen when one notes the passages on perseverance and the danger of apostasy in Acts. In Acts 20:30 it says false teachers will arise who will seek "to draw away the disciples after them." This does not mean backsliding but apostasy, as seen in the term "draw away." The warning was real and involved heresy and apostasy. Also, we have examples of apostasy, possibly Ananias and Sapphira but probably Simon Magus. He "believed and was baptized" (Acts 8:13) but later tried to buy his way into a miraculous ministry. As a result Peter tells him he no longer has a part in the kingdom. Here again the key is the "word of grace" which edifies the believer (Acts 2:42; 4:33; 15:31ff.) and the means is exhortation (Acts 11:23; 13:43; 14:22). Therefore the believer must persevere in order to inherit eternal life. [Why the notions and reality of perseverance and apostasy are significant here is that both undermine any concept of unconditional election which necessitates absolute eternal security. If proactive perseverance and apostasy remain a constant theme throughout the Christian scriptures, and they do, then unconditional election and necessary perseverance or eternal security are inaccurate at best.] 

Acts 16:14; 18:10-27 -- These minor texts all relate to the above and are used to further state the election of the believer via efficacious grace. Steele and Thomas declare, "Faith and repentance are divine gifts and are wrought in the soul through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit." Acts 16:14 speaks of Lydia, saying, "The Lord opened her heart to give heed" [a notion which all classical Arminians advocate: but, while the Lord graciously opened her heart, the text indicates that Lydia is the one who had to then "give heed"]. Here, however, we must again note the context; she was a "worshiper of God" and had already been seeking the truth. [emphasis added: this, mind you, prior to her regeneration!] 

Acts 18:10 says, "I have many people in this city" and Acts 18:27 speaks of "those who through grace had believed." Once again, however, we must note that this speaks of divine election and grace but does not teach that these are final acts. Acts 18:10 speaks of future believers rather than current Christians (Acts 18:8), but this speaks of foreknowledge more than unconditional predestination. The same is true of Acts 10:27, for this does not teach irresistible grace but rather the basis of salvation in general, God's grace. There is no hint of a rigid application to a select few only. In conclusion, Luke in Acts stresses the divine activity behind salvation but does not identify this with a rigid predestinarian call. 

IV. THE PAULINE WRITINGS

The theologian par excellence of the early church is Paul. While his epistles are personal correspondence rather than treatises, and while Paul never made any real attempt to systematize Christian faith and doctrine, he nevertheless epitomizes the implications of Jesus' teaching for the church. 

There has been much debate regarding the central thesis of Paul's system. Since the Reformation, most have believed that justification by faith provides the key. However, apart from Romans and Galatians this is not the core of his thinking, and more recent scholars have tended to follow Schweitzer and Deissman that the "in Christ" motif is at the center. While this is one of the major Pauline themes, however, we might question whether it is broad enough to serve as the key to Paul's thought. The best answer is seen in the recent studies of Green and Ladd, who have shown that eschatological salvation best summarizes Pauline theology. It is neither justification (past) nor "in Christ" (present) nor hope (future) but the inclusion of past, present, and future in the eschatological gift of salvation, the New Age in Christ.

Romans 3:9-12; 5:12; 6:20 -- These passages are bulwarks of the doctrine of total depravity [a doctrine defended by all classical Arminians], defined by Steele and Thomas thusly: "The reign of sin is universal; all men are under its power . . . Men left in their dead state are unable of themselves to repent, to believe the gospel, or to come to Christ. They have no power within themselves to change their natures or to prepare themselves for salvation." [All of which we agree entirely!] Rom. 3:9-12 states that "all" are "under the power of sin" and concludes "none is righteous, no, not one . . . no one does good, not even one." Rom. 6:20 adds to this the fact that man has become "slaves of sin." Calvinists use this as a basis for their theory that man cannot ever choose to accept Christ; he will always choose sin. Only when God's elective love chooses to life individual men out of their depraved condition can anyone be saved.

Before we can discuss Romans 3:9-12, we must place it in its context. It concludes that important section on the universal guilt and condemnation of man (Rom. 1:18-3:20) and sets the scene for Paul's discussion of the path to righteousness (Rom. 3:21-5:21). In this section we find the best expression of Pauline anthropology, dealing with man's bondage to sin. Sin is deliberate rebellion and transgression against the commands of God (Rom. 2:23ff.) and is a falling short of God's standards (Rom. 3:23); man's self-righteous attitude, especially for the Jew, led him to break the true law and become more guilty (Rom. 2:17ff.), and resulted in God's judicial wrath (cf. "God gave them up" in Rom. 1:24ff.). The entire section deals with the pagans (Rom. 1:18-32), the moral Jew (Rom. 2:1-16), Jewish guilt (Rom. 2:13-3:8) and concludes by bringing together both Jew and Gentile under one roof -- universal guilt. Therefore we must conclude that the universality here deals with the quantity (all people) rather than quality (total sin) regarding depravity. There is no hint that depravity means man cannot accept Christ [when graced by the Spirit of God].

Romans 8:1-39 -- This passage is used by Hodge exclusively to teach the doctrine of final perseverance and is indeed one of the important passages in determining Paul's view of salvation. Chapter 8 in a very real sense forms the Pauline victory cry after the seeming defeatism of chapter 7 and deals with the new life of the Spirit. In an eschatological sense it deals with the life of the New Age which the Spirit produces in the life of the believer. 

(1) No condemnation, Romans 8:1 -- The principle of "no condemnation" is taken seriously by Calvinists as the irreversible negation of sin and guilt. The believer is given a twofold promise here -- he is "in Christ" and he has "the Spirit of life." The result is "freedom from the law of sin and death." However, while we agree that there is security and promise here, we must ask whether Murray is correct when he calls the fact "complete and irreversible." We must also agree with him that the passage refers to freedom from the power of sin as well as from the guilt of sin; however, this does not mean that the Christian life is guaranteed for him. Perseverance is also taught in this passage, and it is a necessity for the freedom described here. There is still the choice between a carnal and Spirit-filled mind-set (Rom. 8:6), and the believer must "walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit" (Rom. 8:4). While these are not conditions, they are valid possibilities and cannot be lightly dismissed.

(2) The Principle of life, Rom. 8:11-13 -- Hodge argues that the life principle within the believer is evidence of his security. The Holy Spirit "quickens" or enlivens the believer and is himself the foundation of his security. However, at Romans 8:11-13, this is seen to be conditional upon the continual indwelling of the Spirit, and "mortification of the flesh." Both possibilities -- death and life -- are presented here, and the believer must choose which path to take -- that of the flesh or that of the Spirit. While the victorious side is stressed here, the other side is seen as a definite danger.

(3) Sons of God, Rom. 8:14-17 -- Sonship is a further base for security. Calvinists argue that God would not cast "sons" out of his "family." The "Abba" motif is the key to Jesus' prayer theology in connection with his sonship, and is well connected with the "adoption" theology here. "Abba" was never used in prayer by Jews because it transmitted an intimacy which was foreign to them. Jesus, because of his unique relation to the Father, gave his followers a new relationship to him, and it could not be expressed better than here. Nevertheless, we note the same possibilites as at Romans 8:11-13, and the same need for perseverance. Romans 8:14 says "being led by the Spirit of God" is a prerequisite of sonship.

(4) The purpose of God, Rom. 8:26-30 -- Here we see the juxtaposition of the Spirit's intercession (cf. Rom. 8:26-28) and the redemptive election by God (cf. Rom. 8:29-30). Both aspects are part of the Calvinist soteriology: Redemption is a gift of God and in no way an act of man: God will never fail to save those whom he has called. The major question lies in the relationship between foreknowledge and election -- which is prior? Murray would make election prior, saying, "The faith which God forsees is preconditioned by his decree to regenerate this faith in those he forsees as believing." The term "foreknow," then, refers to God's elective love rather than to an actual foreknowledge of the believer's [own] faith-decision. However, while we would agree that "foreknow" does contain in itself the idea of elective love [i.e., God's love for His own], we would not agree that the word itself indicates a predestinarian decree. We would state with Bruce that the two are simultaneous but separate aspects: "When God takes knowledge of people in this special way, He sets His choice upon them."

There are two major approaches to the predestinarian sense of this paragraph by opponents of the Calvinist interpretation -- corporate and individual. [Robert] Shank believes that election is corporate and refers to the sovereign choice of the church as a whole, while individual members must come to personal decision and must persevere in the faith. . . . The phrase "conformed to the image of his Son" undoubtedly has a personal application and presupposes an individual thrust. Marshall provides [another] answer: the passage itself discusses believers, and not unbelievers (cf. Rom. 8:28). Therefore the election here is not unto salvation but unto conformity [cf. Eph. 1:4]. We would add to this, however, that in every aspect foreknowledge and election are two aspects of divine predestination. God's sovereign choice always takes into consideration the free will of the individual. 

(5) The love of God, Rom. 8:31-39 -- This passage is used by Calvinists to teach the doctrine of election (Rom. 8:33), limited atonement (Rom. 8:32-34), and eternal security (whole passage). Calvin himself calls this "that magnificent exaltation of Paul, in defiance of life and death, of things present and future; which must necessarily have been founded in the gift of perseverance." Regarding the doctrine of the atonement, Murray declares, "The succeeding context specifies just as distinctly those of whom the apostle is speaking -- they are God's elect (Rom. 8:33), those on behalf of whom Christ makes intercession (Rom. 8:34), those who can never be separated from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35, 39). The sustained identification of the persons in these terms shows that this passage offers no support to the notion of universal atonement."

At the outset we must note the optimism of Paul which runs throughout this passage. Towards man he is pessimistic, but when he considers the Father and the Son his rapture knows no bounds. Man may fail, but God will never fail, and the love of Christ is not dependent on the vicissitudes [changes, variations, fickleness] of man.

Here we might note the arguments of Arminius and Wesley. This passage does not relate to perseverance but simply speaks of the believer's encouragement in the faith. Paul here states his confidence in God's part but elsewhere notes his own responsibility and danger (1 Cor. 9;27). Outside pressures can't separate us from God's love, but inward apostasy can. It is God's love rather than his divine decree which is discussed here. We might add that the context provides the solution. Again Paul is speaking to believers, and the "elect" must be interpreted in light of Rom. 8:28-30. . . . It states the same truth as seen in John 19:28-29, that no outward force can separate us from God. The emphasis is on this, but other contexts provide the basis for the further thought (not discussed here), "Can we ourselves fail to use this promise?" We might conclude by saying that even the apostate -- apart from those who have committed the unpardonable sin(s) of Mark 3:28ff., and parallels, Heb. 6:4ff., and 1 John 5:16b -- is still loved and sought by God.



1 Corinthians 2:14 -- This is a key verse in the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity [that necessitates regeneration preceding faith]. The "natural man," when convicted about "the things of God," can neither "receive" them nor "know" them; to him they merely seem "foolishness." Therefore, Hodge concludes, only when man's inward state is changed by the Holy Spirit can he begin to comprehend spiritual truth. "If our gospel is hid, it is hid to those who are lost" [which, according to Calvinist logic, would have to include those among the alleged "unconditionally elect" who are not yet regenerated but are still lost.]. However, this is to misunderstand the Pauline doctrine of faith. 

He is not contrasting free will and sovereignty here but the natural man and the spiritual man. Man's depravity is such that left to himself he could find nothing about God. However, he is not left alone, but is given the Spirit to aid him. Ladd notes "the gnostic-sounding language that sets forth a very ungnostic theology," i.e., the unveiling of God's hidden wisdom (1 Cor. 2:6-13) in the historical act of the cross (1 Cor. 1:18, 2:2). This can be understood only when the Spirit reveals it; but there is no hint here that the Spirit works only among the elite, i.e., the [unconditionally] elect. Rather, his convicting work is universal, but man must yield to it before they can "discern" spiritual truth. 

Ephesians 1:3-12 -- This important passage relates both to unconditional election and final perseverance. Next to Rom. 9-11, this is the most important passage for the Pauline doctrine of predestination. Here we are told that "before the foundation of the world" God "chose us in him," "[predestined, or predetermined] us in love to be his sons," and "appointed [us] to live for the praise of his glory." Boettner uses this passage to refute the Arminian doctrine of foreknowledge, since this "makes faith and holiness to be the consequents, and not the antecedents, of election (Eph. 1:4; John 15:16; Titus 3:5)." The phrase "before the foundation of the world" is a Hebraism for "from eternity" and refers to God's eternal decree of redemption. That decree [so claims the Calvinist] is eternal and immutable. 

Yet there are striking similarities to Rom. 8:29-30. In both passages Paul is speaking to believers, and the "we-you" terminology in both is paralleled by the election itself, which is not to eternal life but to "holy and blameless" lives (Eph. 1:4), to sonship (Eph. 1:5, note the parallel to "conformed to the image of his Son," Rom. 8:29), and to living "for the praise of his gory" (Eph. 1:12). While redemption and forgiveness are a central part of this passage (Eph. 1:7), the election itself looks at believers only and does not consider election out of unbelief, i.e., election here looks at the benefits of the salvation act, not at the act itself. 

A further point is noted by Dibelius, who sees a twofold contrast here: 1) between the part in accomplishing salvation and the human part in hearing and believing; and 2) between "we" or the church and "you" or the one-time pagan readers of Paul's epistle. In both contrasts the benefits are seen on both sides. Election in this respect is not a guarantee given to the privileged few and does not relate to the faith-response as provided only by the overwhelming call of the Spirit. Rather, it refers to God's gracious providence and purpose for those whom he chooses and who respond to the gospel. It relates to privilege as well as status. 

Ephesians 1:13-14; 4:30 -- Both these passages (see also 2 Cor. 1:18-22) relate to the "seal" placed upon the believer by the Spirit. Calvin defines the "earnest" of Eph. 1:14 as a security or promise of the remainder "which, therefore, is not taken back, but kept till the residue is paid to complete the whole sum." The Holy Spirit, then, is the "guarantee" of the believer's future inheritance. Strombeck notes three aspects to the seal here -- sealed as to position (eternal salvation), as to ownership (purchased by his blood), as to future (eternal life). Therefore, Calvinists [and some non-Calvinists and Baptists] argue, the seal of the Spirit does not rest on the continuance of man's faith; belief is the antecedent but not the grounds of the sealing.

The "seal" as such does indeed denote authentication, possession and protection, and the "earnest" refers to the first installment which guarantees full payment later (cf. 2 Cor. 1:22; 5:5). There is a very real security in this passage. However, we must ask if this is an unconditional, final security. Personal responsibility parallels divine protection in Eph. 4:30, where the Christian is warned not to "grieve" the Spirit (cf. 1 Thess. 4:8). Ladd relates this to Pauline eschatology, noting that "the presence of the Holy Spirit in the church is itself an eschatological event." This is certainly true, for Pentecost in the early church was viewed as an eschatological event (note the Joel prophecy) which became the presence of the New Age in the believer, Paul, like the other writers we have noted, interpreted salvation in terms of the tension between the "already" and the "not yet," and the present possession of security is held in tension with the need for future perseverance. The "day of redemption" is secured here, and God's protection is promised, but the believer dare not assume he plays no part. The danger of apostasy is real, and he dare not "grieve" the Spirit.

Ephesians 2:1-3; 4:17-19 -- These two passages contrast the ignorant, rebellious course of the heathen to the enlightened walk of the true follower of Christ. The pagans are "children of wrath" who are "darkened in their understanding" and "alienated from the life of God" "due to their hardness of heart." Many think that these powerful passages, growing out of the death-to-life metaphor of Eph. 2:1, teach the impossibility of human response; God must override man's propensity to evil as he sovereignly [and unconditionally] chooses, thereby bringing the "dead" to "life" via elective love. Yet we must ask if this is really what Paul is trying to say. He is not denying man's faith-response to the salvific call; it is in every way the response of individual volition to God's love and the Spirit's convicting work. 

Ephesians 2:8, 9 -- Closely connected to this is the important passage which provides the Pauline definition of the salvific act: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God -- not because of works, lest any man should boast." This has long been a major Calvinist proof text against the "error" of Wesleyan-Arminianism. The latter, they say, teaches a salvation by "works" and thereby deny the "grace" of God in redemption. Henricksen, for instance, believes that toῦto ["it"] at Ephesians 2:8 refers not to "grace" or to "saved" [the latter posited in the marginal note of the New American Standard Bible, and I agree, cf. John 4:10] but to "faith." In this respect, then, the believer's faith does not come from within him but itself is an external gift from God [which concept I reject entirely]. If faith-decision were an act of human volition, it would become works [not true, cf. Rom. 4:4, 5] and lead to self-boasting [and yet no non-Calvinist or Arminian actually boasts].

There is another approach to the passage, one which does greater justice to the context and to the neuter force of toῦto ["it," i.e., "it" is the gift of God]. That is to take the latter term as referring to the whole previous phrase rather than to any particular part within it. Salvation is the cover term which has two aspects -- God's grace and man's faith. All come within the category of "gift." This is not to say that man's faith is not really man's but originates from the activity of the Spirit; rather, it is a volitional yielding to the activity of the Spirit within. The gift is not forced upon man but must be received on the part of man "by faith." It is not "works" [again, cf. Rom. 4:4, 5] because it is from God; man is the passive recipient because he yields to the Spirit in faith-decision.

Philippians 1:6; 2:13 -- Berkhof takes these two verses with John 6:37-40 [further demonstrating the Calvinist's proof-text approach to hermeneutics and systematic theology] as illustrating the "covenant of redemption" which finalizes the gift of salvation; it is both final and eternal. Phil. 1:6 relates the apostle's confidence that God would safeguard his "good work" among them [the "you" is plural, not singular, denoting and contextualizing a corporate motif] and "bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ," and Phil. 2:13 says God works within his follower "both to will and to work for his good pleasure." The first verse also relates to 1 Cor. 1:7-9, which says God will "sustain you to the very end."

In both cases, Paul is speaking to the church as a whole in his customary "thanksgiving" section, and the context favors a corporate rather than individual interpretation, i.e., the church will be sustained, but individuals will be protected only so long as they remain in the church. However, we would agree that this dare not be taken too far . . . as an answer to the predestination problem. Paul does intend that the promise extend to the individual. He will be kept by God with a view to the final salvation, but this does not obviate the need for perseverance. That necessity is noticeable in Phil. 2:12, 13. The promise of Phil. 2:13 is related to the command of Phil. 2:12, that each person must "work out [his] own salvation with fear and trembling." Once again we have that combination of corporate and individual thrust, with probably a stronger hint of individual application due to the presence of "your own salvation" here. Phil. 2:13, then, is not a promise that the perseverance of Phil. 2:12 will be assured. Phil. 2:16 states the possibility of failure: they could negate his activity among them by failing to "hold fast the word of life."

In conclusion, Paul stresses security and election in his writings, but this never removes human responsibility and the place of perseverance in one's life. Election is related to those who have believed and promises God's strength in bringing them to a life of holiness and to final salvation. At the same time Paul realizes the personal responsibility involved in perseverance. While the Christian is promised God's power, he still must continue to avail himself of that strength. Paul alludes to the danger of apostasy in Rom. 8:12-14; 1 Cor. 9:27; 15:1-2; Col. 1:21-23; 1 Tim. 1:18-20; 4:1, 16. . . . This was a very real danger, and the only antidote was perseverance; while the Christian is promised God's help and protection, he is not given a guarantee. 

V. 1 PETER

The stress in this epistle is upon joy and hope in the midst of persecution. As such, it gives good coverage to both aspects of salvation, i.e., promise and responsibility. The opening tone catches this spirit, speaking of the readers as "sojourners and aliens" who are "elect . . . according to the foreknowledge of God" (1 Pet. 1:1-2). Their "living hope" consists of an "inheritance" which is "kept in heaven" for them, and they are "guarded" by God "unto salvation" (1 Pet. 1:3-5). The stone imagery (1 Pet. 2:4-10) especially emphasizes their chosen position, likening them to the "elect cornerstone," Jesus, and calling them a "chosen race." The Christian life in this epistle is eschatological, lived in present stress but looking forward to the fulfillment of the hope at the manifestation of Christ in glory; to that end God is strengthening and helping them (1 Pet. 1:5-9; 2:12; 4:13, 17ff.; 5:10). 

At the same time Peter is aware of the dangers to faith which persecution brings. It is interesting that, just as in Hebrews, "salvation" in Peter is eschatological, looking forward more to the final reward than the present experience (1 Pet. 1:4, 5, 13; 4:13ff.; 5:1, 40), although the present aspect is seen proleptically [the "anachronistic representation of something as existing before its proper or historical time," FreeDictionary] (1 Pet. 1:9-10) on the basis of Jesus' bringing in "the end of times" (1 Pet. 1:20). 

For this reason the readers were called upon to persevere in their faith-belief (1 Pet. 1:5, "through faith") and to strengthen their hope via sober thinking (1 Pet. 1:13). They must stop living according to sinful man's standards (1 Pet. 2:1, 11ff.; 3:11; 4:1) and start seeking a pure and holy life (1 Pet. 1:15; 2:12, 21; 4:2). A special word in Peter is "do good," found in his epistle four times as opposed to none in Paul (cf. 1 Pet. 2:15, 20; 3:6, 17); this aspect of the Christian life was not just "good works" but persistence in righteous conduct, following Christ's example (1 Pet. 2:21) in the face of pagan persecution (1 Pet. 3:13ff.) and involved submission to all aspects of authority, whether the state, the slave-master relationship, or the home. Satan is active and seeks to lead believers astray (1 Pet. 5:6ff.) and be steadfast in God's grace (1 Pet. 5:12). As in Paul we note the beautiful blend of optimism and exhortation. Election is not a guarantee but rather an encouraging promise. 

CONCLUSION

It is the conclusion here that the New Testament writers each stress differing nuances of the salvation-truth. John and Paul stress the sovereignty side while Hebrews stresses the aspect of responsibility. Yet all are in agreement that there is both sovereignty and responsibility, both security and perseverance. The time of eschatological salvation had begun, and the church was indeed the chosen [elect] people of God. Yet at the same time this was a proleptic gift, looking forward to the final salvation which would be secured at the eschaton [the final Day]. There was security in the sovereign bestowal of eternal life in the present and yet responsibility in the human need for perseverance with regard to the future. With this in mind we will attempt a reinterpretation of the five points at the Synod of Dort. 

  1. Man is totally depraved, i.e., he can do no good in himself and cannot choose Christ over sin. However, this does not mean he has no volition, for the Spirit convicts all men equally and enables them to come to faith-decision, i.e., to the point of yielding to the Spirit's convicting power.
  2. Believers are [conditionally] elect or predestined to a life of holiness and conformity to the Son. This salvific choice is concomitant with foreknowledge and does not amount to an ineffable call to a chosen few but rather is the accompanying force with man's faith-decision.
  3. The atonement is universal, i.e., for all men, and is limited only [in its application, to believers, and] by man's failure to respond.
  4. The call of God's grace is not irresistible and limited to the [unconditionally] elect; rather the "drawing" power of God is universally applied but effective only for those who accept it by faith. God's grace and man's faith are separate aspects of the same salvific act.
  5. Perseverance is a necessity rather than a guaranteed, final promise. It relates to man's need rather than God's protection. Security is the other side of that need, for God does avail himself of that strength, lest he slip away and apostatize from the faith.
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Grant R. Osborne, "Exegetical Notes on Calvinist Texts," in Grace Unlimited, ed. Clark H. Pinnock (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Inc., 1975), 167-85.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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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.