Friday, September 30, 2011

God's Sovereignty Found In James

I wanted to have somewhat of a structure to which book I go through and in what order, so chronological order made sense and I think it will give an interesting perspective on the whole thing. So then, James is up first.

James was the first book of the New Testament that was penned, which was around the mid-40’s. He was Jesus’ half brother, which Mark 6:3 and Matt. 13:55 indicate.

In James we see two specific references to God’s sovereignty in salvation, affirming the doctrine of election. The first one is found right away in 1:18.

“Out of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”

One thing I love about this statement is that it doesn’t use the word elect or predestined, etc. Don’t get me wrong, those words are great and not bad, rather they are necessary to understand the full meaning of the doctrine of election, but James is saying it in a simpler way that contributes greatly to the understanding of this doctrine.

Nowadways, we hear more and more about how we have free will and a free choice to do whatever we want and God loves us for who we are, but that is not a proper rendition of the state of the fallen human race. Augustine once said, perhaps with a bit of purposed sarcasm, that “the will is indeed free, but not freed. Free of righteousness, but enslaved to sin” (emphasis mine).

The truth is that as born, depraved sinners, we do not have the ability to choose a Holy God for our redemption and forgiveness. Romans teaches us that there is no one who seeks for God (3:11) because we are all under sin. This is what Augustine meant when he said that we are only free of righteousness, but we are not freed creatures at all. We are enslaved to sin.

James understands this and teaches it to us by saying that out of God’s own will we were brought forth by the word of truth. It had to be God willfully choosing us in order for us to even know that we needed Him in the first place. Without God opening our eyes and hearts we simply cannot see and cannot understand or desire Him. This is made clear many times in Scripture, which we will get to in the upcoming books. That is the purpose of this whole series. For the sake of not sounding too redundant (in my own expression of this doctrine) I will simply let the text defend itself by showing how much Scripture is saturated with this doctrine.

Now, the Greek word for "will" that is used here is βούλομαι. It means “to will deliberately, have a purpose, be minded”; or “of willing as an affection, to desire.” It is by God’s deliberate purpose and desire that he brought us to Him. He made the first move that prompted us to respond in faith.

ἀποκυέω is the Greek word here for "brought". Why do I mention that? The definition means to “bring forth from the womb; to give birth to; to produce.” So, by God’s deliberate purpose he produced us or begat us, through the word of truth. Is it any wonder we are now called children of God? This also reminds me of what Paul said in Romans 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

This is why we need to get the Gospel right. That is our function as Christians who have the authoritative and living word of God. God uses it to bring his chosen children to repentance and faith in him. Since we do not know who the elect are we preach that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord is saved. Guess who will be the ones that genuinely respond in faith and call on the name of the Lord? The elect. We preach the Gospel and God opens the hearts and eyes of people to respond. It is by His will and grace that we are saved through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:8).

Now, one may say that this particular verse in James does not prove a solid case for the doctrine of election. They may say that some are chosen, but others are left to themselves to choose. However, when we deny that God chooses us for Himself then we end up denying his attributes like having complete omniscience, omnipotence, etc. For more on how these attributes are challenged in light of rejecting election, see my February post “Free Will and the Attributes of God”. God has to choose us in order for many other things, like his very nature and attributes, to be true and consistent with the fact that he is God. Furthermore, we just need to decide whether or not Scripture is our ultimate authority in the matter, rather than our emotions. If we can get to that point, then we will start to approach the text in an appropriate and pure way.

With that said, let’s see what else the text in James says. We see later in 2:5 the second reference to God’s sovereignty in salvation. When talking about the sin of partiality based on money and status, James says, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”

Again, I love that this series will cover all the references to God’s sovereignty because it will show itself in indirect ways, not always like a direct defense of God’s sovereignty as found in Romans 8 and 9 by the Apostle Paul.

Here James is covering a topic that is dealing with the sin of partiality and while he is doing so he asks them “Has not God chosen those who are poor…?” in a way that shows that his readers know this to be common knowledge. It’s almost rhetorical. So while he is teaching them a separate lesson he is also affirming the fact that God chooses us. This is great to see this language come up in other topics of discussion because it shows its general acceptance among the authors and readers anyway. Granted, not all believers back in the days of the apostles had an easy time accepting this doctrine either, which is exactly why Paul gave such a strong defense for it in Romans.

However, here in James we see him mentioning it as obvious: “Brothers, has not God chosen…?”

The Greek word for "choose" in this verse is ἐκλέγομαι and it is used in the NT about 20 times according to a NT Greek lexicon I found online. This is a little more than my own count I made of the English Standard Version, which was closer to 13. However, this is the beauty of going to the Greek because you can see which Greek words are used in which ways. Perhaps the additional counts the lexicon gave were not specific to election, but to someone else picking or selecting something, which is also how this word is used. Does this contradict itself to mean that the word is not always referring to God’s sovereign choosing? No. In fact, it just makes the issue all the more clear.

The word is intended to portray a specific “picking or choosing out for one’s self”. You could use this word when describing someone selecting which apples they want out of the apple bucket in the produce section, which is exactly why the word is used. It shows a specific meaning when used in the context of James 2:5.

“Brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?”

All throughout Scripture we will see how it constantly mentions God’s choosing us and calling us to Him. It is a beautiful doctrine that only encourages a proper understanding of evangelism and gives us a firm assurance of our salvation because it was God’s plan all along.

The Book of James gave us only two instances and already the challenge is upon us: Do we believe it?

Stay tuned for our next book in its proper chronological order: 1st Thessalonians!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

How Grace Is Best Understood

Okay, so I made it through the entire New Testament and looked (and noted) each verse or passage that talked about, or referred to, either directly or indirectly, the topic of predestination and the doctrine of election. It’s been a great lesson. Aside from the specific things that I learned, it just helps to have something specific to be studying because I end up looking forward to when I can sit down again and study the Bible. We all want to say that, right? We all want to be able to want to study, but we tend to have a hard time making the time. Don’t worry, I get there, too, from time to time, which is exactly why I continue giving myself something to specifically study.

Since I had a hard time consistently staying in the Word, I would come up with something that I really didn’t know much about (which is a lot, we will come to find out) and dedicate myself to just flip through the Bible looking for answers. Man, I can’t tell you enough how this is such a great way to study. You really get to know your Bible. I share this as an encouragement to anyone trying to find a way to get in and get deep.

Now, the topic at hand is one that will give us plenty to look at. We’ll take each book as it was chronologically written and go from there. To start this wonderful topic I’m going to give an overall look at how much the New Testament is saturated with God’s willful choice in our salvation. For a look at how we can reconcile human responsibility and God’s calling and electing, take a look at a post I posted earlier this year, titled “Free Will & The Attributes of God”. I covered some work from Calvin who really does a fantastic job of illustrating how all of these things can work together. We are responsible for our rejecting God, yet we rely solely on Him for wanting Him as well.

For the time being, we can take a look at how clearly the NT works together to make God’s choosing known, in many aspects. When I went through the NT I looked for specific words like: calling, elect, predestination, chosen, appointed, etc. I also kept track of how many times each book had references to God’s plan in election. Additionally, I noted where God’s clear and purposed sovereignty was at play in other issues besides salvation because it further validates that God is in fact in control of all things.

By my count, there are approximately 157 references to this doctrine. The word called is used about 44 times; chosen is used about 14 times; elect about 12 times; predestine, 8 times; appoint, about 5 times. The word called is clearly the favorite and it always refers to God’s effectual calling, meaning that when he calls, we will respond. It is not a hopeful and wishful calling, it is a meaningful and authoritative calling that will lead to someone’s salvation. Calvin refers to this as Irresistible Grace.

Here’s some other interesting stats on which books had the most to say about election:

Not surprisingly, Romans came in with the most references, numbering at 24. John and Acts both had 16; Luke had 15; 1st Corinthians had 14; Matthew had 13; and almost every other book had anywhere from 3 to 8 references. The only books that really didn’t speak about, or reference this topic, was 2nd Corinthians, Hebrews, Philemon, and 1st and 3rd John. Basically, about 80% of the books in the NT speak of God’s effectual calling and predestination. Wow. Being that these are various authors at various times in history is remarkable.

Aside from all of that, we haven’t even touched the OT, either, and there is plenty there as well. This doctrine is difficult to grasp and it makes many people angry, but the more you study it and realize what it really means to believe it or not, then you develop an understanding of the paradox and a faith that God is in control and not everything can be broken down to a science. However, there is plenty in the Bible to show us how it works and what it means.

The best thing we could probably take away from this doctrine is that God has chosen His elect, but we do not know who the elect are. Therefore, we preach that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. We are called to preach the Gospel to all nations and to make sure we are making the Gospel clear and correctly handling the word of truth as indicated in 2 Timothy 2:15.

God is in charge of who comes to Him, ultimately. This reduces our need to be creative in filling churches and getting people to conform to outward acts of piety. This allows us to focus on nothing more than getting the message of the Gospel right: we are a depraved and sinful people headed for Hell, in need of a Lord and Savior to rescue us from our sins and for us to be obedient to Him. Without Christ we are nothing. With him we live and move and have our being and it is His grace working in us that allows us to will and act for His good pleasure (Acts 17:28 & Phil. 2:13).

The sovereignty of God in salvation is so remarkable and unfathomably gracious, that it is in fact the only way that grace can be rightly understood. I hope you’ll find some encouragement to dig deep yourself and find the richness of this doctrine of election that is at work behind the scenes of what we, as the Church, do.

The first book I'll be looking at is James and we'll see what he had to say about God's calling us to Him. Stay tuned!