The Doctrine of Salvation (part 5)

June 14, 2009     Time: 00:35:08

We’ve been looking at the question of the doctrine of election in this class. We’ve laid out the competing alternatives between Calvinism and Arminianism. Just to briefly recap. The Calvinist believes that God, before the foundations of the world, picked out certain persons that he would save unconditionally and passed over the rest. He then called these people with an irresistible calling and unilaterally regenerated them so that they would come to faith in Christ and has predestined them to a knowledge of himself and to conformity with the image of Christ. Arminians, on the other hand, think of election as corporate in nature. The object of God’s election is primarily a group – a people – for himself. It is those that have faith in Christ Jesus. It is this corporate body which is predestined to glorification and conformity to the image of Christ. It is up to us as individuals by a decision of our will to decide whether or not we want to be aligned with this corporate group – the church; whether we want to place our faith in Christ and therefore in that secondary sense to be predestined and elect.

In evaluating these positions, I think on the one hand corporate election makes good sense of the tension in Paul’s thinking in Romans between saying that God is sovereign over all, that he has mercy upon whom he has mercy, he hardens the heart of whomever he wills, but nevertheless salvation is available to all. Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. A great deal of what Paul says in Romans 9 and in Ephesians 1 makes sense with this corporate understanding of election. However, I don’t think that it is the whole story. Because as you look at certain passages in the New Testament, it seems undeniable that individuals have also been elected and foreordained to faith in Christ. So one cannot say that this is simply a corporate idea that is only secondarily individual.

Look, for example, at Acts 13:48. This is a very, very interesting passage. Paul is preaching the Gospel, and the Jewish people in the synagogue that Paul and Barnabas had visited had rejected the Gospel so Paul decides to turn to the Gentiles – to the pagans – and to share the Gospel with them. Verse 48 says, “And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” As many as were ordained to eternal life believed. There this is clearly individual. This is not just a sort of corporate ordination. Those among the Gentiles who were ordained to eternal life believed in Christ.

So you cannot say that this is simply a corporate notion. How do you make sense of this? The verb in the Greek is the word tasso which means to “appoint” or “designate” or “set aside.” So the passage says, As many of these Gentiles as were appointed or designated or set aside for eternal life believed. What the Arminian says is that this doesn’t mean that they were appointed or designated or set aside by God. Rather, it means that as many as were disposed to believe to eternal life believed in Christ. It is themselves who were disposed to eternal life. Those are the ones that believed.[1] The Arminian will point out that in verse 46 when the Gospel is preached to the Jewish people they rejected it and so Paul says,

And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles.

So the Arminian will say clearly free will is at play here. The Jews thrust the Gospel from them. Therefore Paul turns to the Gentiles. The verse means as many as the Gentiles who were disposed toward eternal life believed.

Is that a convincing interpretation of the passage? I am not convinced that it is. For one thing, the passive voice that is used here in the Greek, as many as were ordained [or were appointed to] eternal life is very typically used in Greek as a way as designating God as the subject of the verb. Rather than say, “God did this” it will use the passive and say “the person was” appointed to do this. In keeping with this very common idiom of using a kind of divine passive voice, it seems to me very plausible to say that the translation has it right here, “as many as were ordained” (that is by God) “to eternal life believed.” But equally important, I would point out that the context of the whole book of Acts and the theology of Luke supports this reading. Look, for example, at Acts 4:24-28. This is the early church at prayer.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I said that the Calvinist interprets the idea of election to mean there are individuals who are predestined not to go to heaven. The Arminian view is very different. The Arminian view says God has ordained that a corporate body shall go to heaven, but then it is up to you whether or not you want to join the corporate body. It is up to your free will whether you want to be a part of that. Election is not individual primarily; it is corporate. But I don’t mean that on the Arminian view God has selected groups of individuals. No, that is not the idea. What I’m trying to explore now is which of these is the more plausible.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I don’t think you understand what I am talking about when I talk about corporate election. It would be like saying, “All firefighters are destined to receive a medal from the President.” Well, it is up to you whether you want to be a firefighter or not. You just have to join the club, and then you’ll get a medal from the President. So it is not as though certain individuals are predestined to something. It is that a class, a group, is the object of predestination. Then it is up to you by an act of your free will whether or not you want to be a part of that, and therefore in that secondary sense be elect.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I don’t think so. I think it makes very good sense of many of these passages. In previous weeks, we had some interesting illustrations from the law given where, for example, in your will you can designate grandchildren as a beneficiary of your estate even if you don’t know yet if you are going to have any grandchildren. It depends . . .

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Right. It is just an illustration of how something can be foreordained for a class rather than for individuals. If any individuals want to be a member of the class, that is up to them.


What I am suggesting now, however, is that that isn’t the whole story because here in Acts 13 we seem to have a clear case of where specific individuals were ordained or appointed to eternal life. I want to look at this in the context of the whole of the theology of Acts by looking at Acts 4:24-28. Here is, again, the early church at prayer praying to the Lord[2]:

And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, didst say by the Holy Spirit,

‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples imagine vain things?
The kings of the earth set themselves in array,
and the rulers were gathered together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place.

Notice there specific individuals are named – Herod, Pontius Pilate are named as individuals – as well as the Gentiles and peoples of Israel. They are said that they are going to do whatever God’s hand and his plan had predestined to take place. It is interesting, again, to look at the vocabulary. The word there for “predestined” is proorizo. That is the same word that is used in Romans 9 where it talks about being predestined. The word “plan” - boule – is the same word that is used in Ephesians in talking about God’s plan. Here, in the context of the whole of the book of Acts and the theology of Luke, I think is very implausible to say Acts 13:48 means “as many of them were disposed toward eternal life believed.” Luke’s theology is that all of this comes to pass according to God’s plan and foreordination.

Look also at Acts 2:23 for further confirmation of this. This is Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. In Acts 2:23 Peter says, “this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan [boule] and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Here, again, the crucifixion of Christ is said to happen by the plan of God. And also notice here by the foreknowledge of God (prognosis, from which we get our word prognosis. It is virtually a transliteration of the Greek). According to the foreknowledge and the plan of God the crucifixion took place, and this was all as God had planned.

It seems to me that in Luke’s theology this whole thing unfolded according to the foreknowledge and definite plan of God as he had foreordained it to happen.

Moreover, Paul, I think, had himself a sense of being selected as an individual to salvation and service to Christ. Look over at his letter to the Galatian church – Galatians 1:15. Paul says, “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace . . .” Sounds like Jeremiah doesn’t it? Paul thought that even before he was born God had set him apart, and at the right time he had called him by his grace. The word here for “set apart” is aphorizo. It is the same root as the predestination. proorizo means to foreordain. aphorizo means to set apart. It is the same root word with a different prefix. Paul is saying that God, even before he was born, had set him apart and on the right time on the road to Damascus that day God called him by his grace. This is clearly, I think, individual and not just corporate.

Finally, Acts 9:15 also talks about Paul’s conversion on the Damascus road.[3] This is God speaking to Ananias who is going to go get Paul: “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he [Paul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.’” The word “chosen instrument” is very interesting. The word “instrument” is skeuos. It means “vessel.” It is the same word that is used in Romans 9 where Paul talks about there are some vessels for menial use, other vessels of destruction that are for dishonorable use. He says he is a chosen, selected vessel according to God’s plan.

At the same time, though, Paul didn’t think that this was incompatible with human freedom. Look at what Paul says in Acts 26:19 when he is relating his testimony about what happened to him on the Damascus road. This is when he is telling Agrippa about what happened. He says, “Wherefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” Paul thinks of himself as set apart before he was born, God had planned this for him and then called him at the right time, but then here is the human response - “but I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision.” Paul held these truths in tension. He thought of all of this as happening according to the foreordination of God and yet at the same time this wasn’t incompatible with him saying, I wasn’t disobedient to God’s call and with saying in Romans 10, Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

The corporate view of election doesn’t take seriously, I think, the individual nature of God’s selecting people and ordaining them to eternal life and, in general, his plan over all of human history. On the other hand, the Calvinistic view doesn’t take really seriously the human freedom to respond or reject God’s call and ordination upon one’s life. The question is: how can we put these together?

This is where I think the doctrine of divine middle knowledge can really help us to unlock this mystery. For those of you who don’t remember, middle knowledge is God’s knowledge of how every possible person that God could create would freely act in any set of circumstances he might place them in. Middle knowledge furnishes the key to God’s providence. Knowing how people would freely behave in any set of circumstances God places them in, God can determine to create certain people, he can decide to put them in certain circumstances knowing exactly how they will freely act. I think this is the key to the divine providence that is described in Acts 4:28 that we read where it says that Herod and Pilate together with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel were all gathered in Jerusalem at that time to do whatever God’s plan and predestination had decided to take place. This was not something that was determined by God. It was simply that God knew if Pilate were the governor at that time he would find Jesus guilty. He knew if Herod were the king at that time he would deliver Jesus over to Pilate. He knew that the people of Israel would cry out for Jesus’ crucifixion and that the Romans would freely carry it out. So it all happened according to God’s plan. It was all ordained in advance. But it wasn’t scripted by God. These people were marionettes or robots. They all did it freely. But God just knew what they would do.[4]

God knows whether or not, in any set of circumstances, a person would freely respond to his grace and be saved. The circumstances in which we find ourselves include not just physical circumstances like time and place and other people and causal influences upon us, but it also includes any gifts of God’s grace or solicitation of the Holy Spirit that God might want to accord to us. God knows exactly how a person would respond to his grace under any set of circumstances that God might place him in. So he knew, for example, that if a Saul of Tarsus persecuting the early church were to see a resurrection appearance of Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul would freely not be disobedient to the heavenly vision, just as he said. Paul would freely follow Christ and follow God’s plan and calling for his life.

What this means then is that God can choose which people to create and which circumstances to place them in. Before the foundations of the world God knew which people would believe in him and be saved. He has, in that sense, set them apart. Then he calls them at the right time knowing that they would freely respond. Notice in Romans 8:29 (that famous passage on predestination) it is according to his foreknowledge. Romans 8:29 says, “for those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”

This would explain, I think, both how God can have a kind of corporate election for the church, for people who freely believe in him, and yet also in a sense God is in control of all of human history in knowing exactly who would believe and who would not.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Of course, I don’t know the exact answer to that question because I don’t know what his will for Pilate was. But I think we could say a couple of things. One would be that it was God’s will that Christ be crucified.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: No. If you think that then you don’t understand the view, because the view is that Pilate was entirely free to do whatever he wanted in those circumstances. These are freedom permitting circumstances.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: I will say something more about that in a minute. I think God does give adequate grace to Pilate to do the right thing. But he knows that he wouldn’t do it. He knew that he would refuse.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Preordained in the sense that God knew what he would freely do in those circumstances.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Right, but you see it is not causally determined.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That means you need to study a little bit more! Because it is not incomprehensible. It is a perfectly comprehensible view, but it is a subtle view and it is difficult sometimes for lay people to grasp it at first who haven’t really studied it. You just walked in here fresh and haven’t heard anything about the doctrine of middle knowledge or what it means so it is no wonder it would appear difficult at first. But once you get the idea of a God who knows how everybody would freely behave in any set of circumstances he was in then you could see how God could bring about certain things without abusing people’s freedom. It would be entirely their choice. In any set of circumstances that people are in, God always wills that the person makes the right choice. He does not will that people sin. He always wills that people will do the right thing in any set of circumstances they find themselves in. But he knows that some people would not – they would freely chose to do the wrong thing. He can use that in order to bring about his greater purposes like the redemption of the world through Christ.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Oh, yeah.[5] Sure. She had a dream, right? It says Pilate’s wife had a dream saying, Do not condemn that righteous man. Presumably this was a dream from God or something of that sort. He ignored it.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Of course. Yes. As I say, we have no idea what God did for Pilate earlier on in life or any of those sorts of things. God’s will is always that a person do the right thing in whatever circumstances he is in, and sin is not necessary.


Let me give some application to this, because I think this is important.

The original person who crafted the doctrine of middle knowledge – Louis Molina – believed that God provides sufficient grace for salvation for every person he creates. So every person can be saved if he wants to. At some time during your life God will give you sufficient grace for salvation. He knows some of you won’t respond to it. But that is up to you. God does his part in providing sufficient grace for salvation for everyone. Molina believed that God wants everyone to be saved, and he gives everyone sufficient grace to be saved even though he knows that many of the lost will not be saved. In fact, on Molina’s view, many of the damned and the lost actually receive greater measures of grace than some of the elect. Some of the elect respond to God very quickly, but many of the lost refuse to respond to God’s grace no matter how many opportunities he gives them. So it is not that anyone is lost for want of God’s effort or want of God’s grace. Sufficient grace is given to everybody for salvation.

The question is then: does God want everybody to be saved? The doctrine of middle knowledge is neutral with respect to that. It is how you apply the doctrine that can give you different answers. For example, there is a school of thought within Molinism called congruism. Congruists believe that God knows what grace would be congruent for any person he creates. That is to say, what grace he could give to any person that would elicit a free affirmative response. God knows exactly what grace he could give to any person that would bring about a free response of salvation. You might think in that case then everybody would be saved. Well, not so fast. Because it is not enough for there to be congruent grace for every individual. You have to put these all together into a whole world of individuals. In that case it may be that there is no, what we might call, compossible world in which there is a congruent grace for everybody that exists. It might be that in some worlds Joe would receive Christ and be saved only if Sam would reject him and be lost. So it is not possible to bring about the salvation of both even given God’s congruent grace. It may be that there is no feasible world for God to create in which everyone freely responds to his grace and is saved. In any world of free persons that God might create somebody at least would freely reject his grace and be lost. God does will the salvation of everyone but unfortunately there is no world that is feasible for God in which this would happen freely. That would be one option.

Here’s another option. This gets as close to Calvinism as you possibly can. You could say there are worlds feasible for God in which everybody responds and is saved, and God could have chosen such a world. But he preferred not to. Instead, for his own purposes, he preferred to choose a world in which only some people respond to his grace and are saved and the others refuse his grace and are lost, but they do so freely and so they have no one to blame but themselves. If you take that view, that is as close to Calvinism as you can possibly get and yet still retain free will. Because in that case God could have created a world in which everyone freely responds and is saved but he chose not to. Rather, he chose a world in which just certain persons that he knew would respond do respond and are saved, and the rest freely reject him and are lost. On that view you could have freedom of the will and yet this kind of election that the Calvinist wants to say that is selective and he could have done more.[6]

My own personal inclination is to go for the former option. I think in light of the passages in Scripture that says that God is not willing that any should be lost, his will is that every person be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, we should say that if there were a world all things being equal in which everyone would freely respond and be saved, that God would have preferred that world and created it. That suggests that there is no feasible world having a better balance of saved than lost than the world that God has in fact created which includes of course the past, present, and future.

This, I think, makes good sense of both the passages in Scripture that speak of everything happening by God’s foreordination and yet it also makes good sense of the passages that speak of human liberty and human responsibility.

I can sum it up by the words of one French Molinist that I think quoted in this class before that are wonderfully thought provoking and paradoxical but I think capture it correctly. This French theologian put it this way: it is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined; but it is up to us whether we are predestined in the world in which we find ourselves.

It is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined. That is to say, God could have created worlds in which we didn’t exist, and other people were saved instead of us, or maybe even worlds in which we freely rejected his grace and went to hell and were not saved. So it is up to God whether we do find ourselves in a world in which we freely respond to his grace in our circumstances and are saved. It is up to God whether we find ourselves in a world in which we are predestined.

But it is up to us whether we are predestined in the world in which we find ourselves. That is to say, in any world in which you are created by God, God wills your salvation, he works for your salvation, and he gives you sufficient grace for salvation. It is up to you whether or not you want to be predestined. That sounds very much like corporate election, doesn’t it? It is up to us whether we are predestined in any world in which we find ourselves. I think that is the wonderful tension here that exists between the sovereignty of God and the liberty of man.

Am I saying that Paul had the doctrine of middle knowledge in mind when he wrote Romans 9? Of course not. I think for Paul, he probably simply understood that God is sovereign and everything happens according to his ordination and plan, and yet he also firmly believed that man is free. I don’t know that Paul had a theory of how to put these together, but I am suggesting that the doctrine of middle knowledge enables us to see how these can be put together in a way that is intellectually and biblically satisfying.


Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: Yes, you are right. It is free will, and it is not God’s will that anybody go to hell. God’s will is that everybody be saved. If a person goes to hell it is because he has deliberately rejected God’s every effort to save him. But I do want to try to put it together with this truth of foreordination that Scripture teaches in an individual way, I think. Not just a corporate way but an individual way. I think Molina has helped us to see how to do that.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: That is a very good point that I didn’t bring out. I think that is the Acts 2:23 passage – isn’t it? – where Peter says that this happened according to the foreknowledge and the plan of God: You killed him by the hands of lawless men. There is the tension. You see? The lawless men killed him themselves, and they are responsible. Yet it happened according to God’s plan.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Craig: The emphasis is upon a personal individual choice to follow Christ and make him the Lord of one’s life.


Our next subject will be the doctrine of eternal security or perseverance of the saints. See you next week.[7]



[1] 4:56

[2] 9:50

[3] 15:05

[4] 20:06

[5] 25:02

[6] 30:02

[7] Total Running Time: 35:08 (Copyright © 2009 William Lane Craig)