The Doctrine of Man (part 13)

May 10, 2009     Time: 00:29:36


Part 13, last installment in the Doctrine of Man series.

We’ve been talking about the doctrine of man and particularly about human freedom with respect to salvation. Last time we contrasted the view of the Protestant Reformers that man had no freedom vis-a-vis God in terms of salvation, that salvation was a unilateral act of God and wholly by God’s prerogative, and that human beings really did not play any sort of a role of a free agent in salvation. We contrasted that with the Catholic teaching at the Council of Trent which did affirm human freedom to respond to divine initiative. Although God takes the initiative in providing prevenient grace, it is up to us to respond to that in order to be justified.

The drawback of the Catholic view (in my opinion, such that it makes me feel squeamish) is the suggestion that salvation is then the result of the merit of the good works that we do by the grace of God. Having received God’s grace we then do good works which are meritorious and earn eternal life.

Is there some way of finding a rapprochement between these views that would affirm the best in both of them but without the disadvantages? I want to suggest this morning a different perspective on Romans 9 than the one that is typically given by Reformed theologians. Remember we read in Romans 9 about God’s freedom to save whom he wishes. He hardens whom he wishes. He has mercy upon whom he wishes. It is up to God and God alone who is saved and who is damned. Typically this is interpreted to mean that God is narrowing down the scope of his elect in grace to a specific few that he has chosen to be saved. Out of the mass of humanity God elects a certain few and the focus is narrowed down to picking out those few people to be saved, and he does so unilaterally and he passes over the rest who are then reprobate and damned. I want to suggest a very different way of looking at Romans 9 that I think is more true to the original context, and that is to think of Romans 9 not as narrowing the scope of God’s election but quite the reverse – as broadening the scope of God’s election.

It seems to me that Paul’s burden in Romans 9 is not to narrow down the scope of God’s election but rather to explain to the Jews how it can be the case that the Gentiles are now welcomed into the Kingdom of God and are the recipients of God’s grace. The burden is to show that God has the freedom to save even these execrable Gentiles should he choose to do so, and that the Jewish people who thought of themselves as God’s privileged few cannot gainsay God if God wants to do that. God has the freedom to save whom he wants, to harden whom he wants, and if God has chosen to save the Gentiles then you can’t complain about it.

When you look at Romans 9 in that perspective I think it sheds a whole new interpretation on it which makes a great deal of sense. What Paul is saying there in Romans 9:6 is that the word of God hasn’t failed in Israel’s apostasy because it is not everybody who is physically descended from Abraham who is an object of God’s election. Rather, God elects whomever he wants. If he wants to elect the Jews, that is fine. But if he wants to elect and save the Gentiles as well, that is fine. The Jewish person cannot complain about God’s wanting to do this because God is free. He is the one who determines who will be saved and who will not. If it is up to God who will be saved and who will not be saved, who is it then that God has chosen to save? What is the answer to that question? Who is it that God has chosen to elect? Paul’s answer is: those who have faith in Christ Jesus whether they be Jew or Gentile. Those are the ones that God has chosen to save. Those are the true sons of Abraham – those who have faith in Christ Jesus.

If you look over at Galatians 3 this is almost like a commentary on Romans 9.[1] Galatians 3:6-9,

Thus Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith.

That seems to me to be Paul’s answer. He is saying God has the sovereign freedom to save whomever he wants, and he has chosen to save those who have faith in Christ Jesus. Therefore he has broadened out his election to include not only Jews but Gentiles as well, and that the reason Israel failed, he goes on to explain, is because they sought God’s righteousness by works. But the Gentiles have attained it because they sought it by faith. They have placed their faith in Christ Jesus.

That interpretation, I think, makes better sense of chapter 10. You can go on to chapter 10 and Paul can then say, “Therefore everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” That doesn’t make sense if you think of chapter 9 as narrowing down the focus of salvation to those whom God unilaterally plucks out of the mass of sinful humanity to save. But if you think of it in the terms I just explained then of course the answer will come in chapter 10, Therefore whoever believes in Christ Jesus will be saved. Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, be he Jew or Gentile.

I think that if we think of Romans 9 in this way it is fully compatible with human freedom because the object of election is this corporate group – the body of Christ, the church – and it is up to you whether or not you want to be a member of that corporate group. You become a member of that by faith. It is those who are men of faith who are the sons of Abraham and therefore heirs to all of the promises of the covenant.

You might say but didn’t we read in Ephesians 2:8-9 that faith is a gift of God and therefore it must be something that just comes directly from God? Well, let's look at Ephesians 2:8-9 again: “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.” What you need to understand is that the pronoun “this” doesn't refer to “faith” because they are not the same gender. What “this” refers to is the whole process of salvation by grace through faith. That is the gift of God, not the result of works lest any man should boast. But it is definitely not saying faith is the gift of God lest any man should boast. That would be grammatically impossible because the gender of faith and the gender of the pronoun are different. What Ephesians 2:8-9 is saying is salvation by grace through faith is the gift of God, not the result of works. That leaves us then with the question: are we going to be persons of faith? Are we going to be sons of Abraham who place our faith in Christ Jesus?

It seems to me that we want to affirm, in line with I think Roman Catholic doctrine, that we have the freedom to respond to God’s gracious initiative. We will not seek God on our own initiative. God’s prevenient grace is necessary. But we do have the freedom to respond or reject – we are not just like puppets. God, I think, although this gets into a different topic, willing that all persons should be saved will give his prevenient grace to all persons – to invite them to be saved. You will remember it says in Timothy that God desires all persons to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. In 2 Peter he is not willing that any should perish but that all should reach repentance. So God draws people to himself bestowing his prevenient grace upon them and they can then respond.

What this would imply then is that grace is not irresistible. Grace can be resisted by a person. God gives you prevenient grace to draw you to himself, but at some point you have the ability to resist that grace and reject it and so separate yourself from God forever. Your damnation in that case will be your own fault. You have chosen it because you have rejected willingly God’s prevenient grace.[2]

On the other hand, if you respond to God’s grace and are saved, this is no credit or merit to you. It is simply the passive acceptance of the gift of God – of the grace of God. But it is not a meritorious work. One of the fundamental mistakes of the Calvinist, I think, is in thinking of faith as a sort of work that we perform – that if we have faith or exercise faith in God then somehow I have done something to merit my salvation (I’ve performed a work). Since salvation is not of works it cannot be that I have freedom to exercise faith to God. But when you read Paul, for Paul faith is always the opposite of works. Faith is not a work. Faith is always contrasted with works. If we say that I can respond to God’s grace by placing my faith in Christ or by receiving his grace for salvation, this is not a meritorious work that I do. On the contrary, it is just my passively receiving or accepting God’s grace given to me. It is not resisting is what it is. It is not resisting the grace of God but allowing his grace to save me. Therefore we should not think of faith as something that is meritorious or goes to earn salvation.

If that is correct then I think we can reconstruct the order of salvation that was suggested at the Council of Trent in the following way. This is the way I would prefer to think of it.

The first step is God’s prevenient grace. That is to say, God is the one who takes the initiative in seeking out sinful, fallen man to draw him to himself.

Step two will be the response of faith. As I say, this is not a work that we perform or a meritorious act. It is simply not resisting the prevenient grace of God but accepting God’s saving grace.

Step three will be justification. This would be regeneration. At this point one would be born again. One would be declared righteous, and the righteousness of Christ is imputed to one and one’s sins are forgiven. This would be regeneration and justification, and would be taking place in the third slot as a result of one’s response of faith to the grace of God.

Step four is what is called perseverance. That is to say, he who endures to the end will be saved as the Scriptures says. It is not enough just to go forward to the altar and have an emotional experience at the revival meeting or the Billy Graham rally. Rather, perseverance is required for ultimate salvation. But, again, we don’t (and here I want to differ from the Catholic) want to say that this is a matter of a meritorious work that you do whereby you earn salvation. Rather, perseverance is simply continuing to walk in the grace of God daily to, as Paul says, keep yourself in the grace of God. We should not think of salvation as being a reward or a recompense for some meritorious work that we’ve done. Perseverance would be a necessary condition of salvation.

Finally, the fifth point would be eternal life. When you die in God’s grace then you go to be with him forever.

This would be the way I would want to put this together in such a fashion that it affirms both human freedom as well as divine initiative but does not think of salvation as a reward for meritorious conduct and would construe election as primarily a corporate notion.[3] There is a people that God has predestined for himself for justification, glorification, and so forth. It is those who have faith in Christ Jesus. It is those who choose to place their faith in him. That puts then the onus upon us as to where we will spend eternity. We have within our hands the awesome power to determine where we will spend eternity.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: These are good questions that you have asked. Is Paul, in Romans, in fact addressing a Jewish audience? Because my interpretation presupposes that he is. I think when you read the opening chapters of Romans it is very clear that a large part of that church is Jewish-Christian. Look, for example, at Romans 2:17. This forms a kind of hinge verse. Up to that point he seems to be talking about Gentiles – those who have never been part of the covenant family of God but who have the law written on their hearts. But then in verse 17 there is a sort of hinge and he says,

But if you call yourself a Jew and rely upon the law and boast of your relation to God and know his will and approve what is excellent, because you are instructed in the law, and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness, a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you then who teach others, will you not teach yourself?

He goes on to show how the Jews have failed to live up to the demands of God’s law. I think it is very clear that there is a significant portion of the Roman church that comes out of a Jewish background. That would make sense then of chapter 9 having this concern to say that God has the freedom to save whomever he wants, and if that includes Gentiles who don’t keep the law, that’s God’s prerogative.

In terms of the Old Testament, I think you have a similar sort of corporate election. God had chosen a people for himself in the Old Testament, hadn’t he? This people of the Hebrews. But that didn’t mean that everybody was therefore saved or righteous. There were plenty of apostate Jews and plenty of people in rebellion against God. Think of the wicked kings and how over and over again Israel would fall into apostasy. Even in the Old Testament, though there was a corporate election of the people, there needed to be the individual response of faith and righteous living in order for someone to truly be a beneficiary of God’s grace and kingdom. So I think it is quite continuous with the notion of election in the Old Testament.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Very nice analogy from an attorney! You can have a will in which your heirs and beneficiaries are people who don’t yet exist. You can nominate your grandchildren. But that is an open group to whomever happens to be your children’s offspring. So that is a good analogy to this sort of corporate idea. Once you begin to look at the New Testament in this light you see all kinds of corporate images. Think of the olive tree with the branches grafted in or broken off, or the building of living stones, or the priesthood of believers, or the sheep fold, or the body with its many members and parts. There are all kinds of these corporate images in the New Testament that I think seen in this light makes good sense.

I do think that there can be a kind of individual election if you have a middle knowledge or Molinist perspective in that God knew exactly who would respond to his grace in what circumstances. So in one sense, in virtue of choosing to create certain people and place them in those circumstances, he knew who would freely be saved and who would freely not be saved. So God has chosen a world in which these people are placed in these circumstances and as a result they freely place their faith in Christ Jesus and are saved. That is a kind of predestination if you will but is one that is fully compatible with human freedom.[4]

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Let me just say this by way of response. I think that paradox should only be a last resort that we are forced to.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That is what a paradox is. That is the question – is it really a contradiction? It does seem to me that it is incoherent to affirm both that salvation is unilaterally God’s act and that there is significant human freedom. To call it a paradox doesn’t really (I don’t think) remove the contradiction. We should only opt for that kind of solution if there isn’t a better solution available. In this case I think that there is a better solution available which can make sense of the passages in John 6 which do seem to presuppose a sort of human response. But if there isn’t any human freedom – any kind of libertarian freedom – it seems to me we are not left with paradox but just left with incoherence. I am reluctant to go that route unless I’m really forced to.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Obviously, not everyone in this class agrees on everything.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Romans 8:29?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think everyone would agree with that – that God’s ultimate goal is, as you say, sanctification and glorification. The question is: in a verse like that, is this talking about a predestination that is primarily corporate or is it individual? If it is primarily corporate then it is secondarily individual insofar as one chooses to identify with this body of elect persons.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Insofar as one wants to talk about God’s individual predestination or plan for your life and so forth, that is where I think this middle knowledge perspective – or Molinist perspective – is so helpful. Because it will give you a kind of meticulous providence (as has been called) and yet it does so without turning you into a puppet or a marionette. Remember when we talked about God’s omniscience we said that Louis Molina thought that God has this type of knowledge called middle knowledge which is he knows what every person would freely do in any set of circumstances he places him in. So he knew, for example, that if I were to sit behind Sandy in my high school sophomore German class that she would share her faith with me and that I would then begin to read the New Testament and freely place my faith in Christ. In that sense you can say, yeah, before the foundations of the world God had planned this out. Bill Craig would sit behind Sandy that day in German class and hear the Gospel. But that type of sovereignty is totally compatible with human freedom. It is not like God is moving the little chess players on the board without their having any kind of volition in it.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I feel very uncomfortable with that explanation. That to me sounds like it is lapsing back into Calvinism again whereas I think the point someone earlier made is the one that bothers me over and over again. It is why I am not a Calvinist. God desires all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. He is not willing that any should perish. Therefore, if Judas’ damnation is the result of God’s withholding the predestination to perseverance from him . . .

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: So would you agree with me that Judas could have persevered if he had wanted to?[5] Would you agree with me Judas could have persevered in God’s grace had he wanted to?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: OK. Nevertheless, in speaking of antinomy, this is what our friend here meant by paradox. This is synonymous – paradox and antinomy. But I don’t want to have to appeal to that unless we are absolutely forced to. I think that the perspective that I’ve laid out today – I’d invite you to at least consider it as to whether or not this might not be a resolution of the supposed antinomies. That would mean we are not stuck with an antinomy after all.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: But don’t you think that Paul had a coherent view in mind?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: So we want to try to find out what that was.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I picked these Scriptures because these seem to be the key ones. But obviously in doing theology what you would want to take is the whole Pauline corpus and try to say, “What was Paul’s view?” I’m sure the man had a coherent view. He didn’t just affirm antinomies of this sort. That is what I am trying to figure out – what is that view? How can we make sense out of a man who could write Romans 9 and then write Romans 10?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I think Calvin was a hyper-Calvinist. As I read Calvin, I think he was a hard-lined, strong Calvinist! People who say, “I am Calvinist but not hyper-Calvinist” I don’t see the distinction in Calvin between those two. I don’t say that to be critical but just to try to understand the man’s view. I think his view was that God determines everything that happens, even sinful actions.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I’ve heard you express this view before. I thought of that. But that would turn Paul into a puppet. I am not sure we want to say that. Paul says in one of his testimonies in the book of Acts (I think it is before Agrippa) he says, Therefore I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, O King, but I did this and that. Paul even seemed to presuppose that it wasn’t as though this vision on the Damascus road was something that robbed him of human freedom.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: But even then, when God straightened him out on the Damascus road, he seems to think he had the ability to disobey that heavenly vision and not obey the instructions. Later in his own letters Paul says things like, Brethren, I do not consider that I have yet attained it, but one thing I do forgetting what lies behind I strain forward to what lies ahead. He wasn’t presumptuous about this point about perseverance. I think that Paul still thought of himself as having significant freedom.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: OK. We will get into that later when we get to doctrine of justification. In fact, we’ll revisit some of these subjects when we come to our next topic which will be the doctrine of justification.


This brings to a close our section on doctrine of man. As I said, not everyone in this class is going to agree with everything. That is just fine. We are here to mutually stimulate and encourage one another to think.[6]

[1] 4:55

[2] 10:03

[3] 15:12

[4] 20:00

[5] 25:03

[6] Total Running Time: 29:36 (Copyright © 2009 William Lane Craig)