Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Paradox Must Stand

Questions about soteriology, the particulars of the salvation of sinners, are ones which have occasionally frustrated me for many years. I once was a vocal Arminian, ready to try to tear to shreds in a debate any Calvinist who crossed my path. I spent two years at a seminary with some of the best Arminian minds in the world. I sat under the teaching of Jerry Walls who has debated with Calvinists at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and done a decent job of it, although I seriously doubt he convinced any Calvinists to change their position.

From the beginning though, even when I would defend Arminianism with all the force I could muster, I had my doubts about the position. One thing that bothered me the most at Asbury was that I noticed Arminians would use much more philosophy and reason in defending their position while the Calvinists would tend to focus much more on the plain teaching of Scripture. My doubts about Arminianism continued to grow as the "emerging church" movement took off and I saw so many Arminians enamored with men who would later be shown to be false teachers, either by denying basic Christian doctrines or by calling "blessed" what the Bible calls sin.

When I started medical school at Loma Linda I was surrounded by Seventh-day Adventists, almost 100% of whom have an Arminian view of salvation. But those who would become my close friends were nearly all non-SDA Calvinists who tended to be very confident in their theological positions. I came to Loma Linda disheartened with much of what I saw going on in Arminianism and was forced to truly consider the Calvinist position in the conversations and debates which occurred on a regular basis during my years there.

One thing that I realized early on was that I was a monergist and had always been one. I knew that Scripture taught monergism and when I looked subjectively at my own salvation I knew that there could be nothing but the monergistic grace of God at work in saving me. It's strange that I had not realized this before but I now understood the vague sense of unease I had always had with the Arminianism I once thought I embraced. And while many, perhaps the majority, of Arminians will say that they are monergists, when the mechanics of their system is taken into account I can't help but think it looks pretty synergistic to me.

But while monergism was something I could not deny and while I came to the conclusion that a denial of monergism is a very dangerous theological position to hold, I could not go the rest of the way with my Calvinistic brothers. While they generally seemed to be much more humble in their relation to the Word of God compared to many Arminians I had known, it still seemed that the system of Calvinism didn't fit well in places with what is revealed in Scripture, especially in terms of the scope of Christ's atoning work and God's will for the salvation of all sinners. If you've read this far you probably don't need to be reminded of the many verses which would indicate that Christ did indeed die for the sins of the whole world and that God does indeed desire that all should reach repentance and not perish (2 Peter 3:9). I know that Calvinists have their verses too which would seem to refute the Arminian system of thought.

I write all of that lengthy preamble to give some sense of why I felt so blessed by two sermons I recently heard preached on consecutive Sundays. On the first of those two Sundays the text was Isaiah 64:1-9. Rarely have I heard the holiness of God preached in a clearer or more forceful way. It is here in Isaiah that we see that the best "righteousness" we could ever attempt to offer to God is "as filthy rags." It is the frequent denial or underestimation of the infinite magnitude of God's holiness which allows some to think that they have something to contribute for their salvation, that they have some righteousness of their own in which they can stand before God. But this idea that we contribute something to our own salvation is also refuted here by the prophet when he says in v. 7, "there is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you..." Perhaps one could argue that this very clear proclamation of monergism applied only to some specific group of people and not to humanity as a whole. But when this verse is read in the context of the teachings of Paul and of Christ, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (John 6:44)," then I think one can do nothing but accept that truly no one rouses himself to "take hold of God." No boasting is allowed because the glory of salvation, from beginning to end, goes to God and His amazing grace to helpless sinners who could do nothing to save themselves (Romans 3:27).

A week after the holiness of God, the hopeless state of sinners and the saving grace of God in Christ, by His shed blood, toward those hopeless sinners, was so emphatically proclaimed, the text which was preached was 2 Peter chapter 3. Here the mercy of God was proclaimed in His "slowness" and patience in allowing sinners time for repentance. 2 Peter 3:9 reads, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." Here the preacher acknowledged the monergism which he had preached the week prior but I was so thankful that he did not then begin advocating some system of theology to make sense of the paradoxical nature of these claims of Scripture, that salvation is of God alone without admixture of some work of man and that God desires that none should perish. Yet Scripture is also clear that not all will be saved. It cannot be denied that hell is a real place which will be inhabited by many for all of eternity. Instead of assuming some "secret will of God," where He in reality only desires the salvation of some, or by giving man glory in salvation by making a "decision" into the decisive saving act, the Pastor simply stated, "the paradox must stand." I was so thankful for the freedom given in this statement, the freedom to simply believe the plain teaching of Scripture without assenting to some system of thought which may make perfect logical sense but which seems to deny some important aspect of who God is or who we are as helpless sinners.

Stating that "the paradox must stand," is taking a position of humility. It feels good to think we have things figured out. It's very satisfying to have five or seven points which fit together with perfect logic in explaining the relationship of God to man. It's also satisfying to many to deny the gravity of the fall and the depravity of man and imagine that we are capable of cooperation with God in our salvation instead of simply acknowledging that we are dead in our sins, can offer nothing toward the gaining of salvation and that all of our righteousness is in Christ, in His shed blood. Being humble before the Word of God and allowing paradoxes to stand has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn as a Christian. I'm thankful to sit under the preaching of one who strives not to go beyond what is revealed in the Bible and I hope that God will allow me to do likewise when I meditate on Him and His ways.

1 comment:

Josh Monen said...

Very interesting. I had to look up the word "monergism" (I think I get smarter when I read your blog...or at least my vocabulary increases).

Honestly, I haven't thought or studied this topic enough to really offer a credible point of view. While from what I can tell I guess I'm more of an Arminian...but I also believe it is God's grace alone that saves a man and yet man still chooses to place his faith in Christ (at least that's what I believe).

I don't have it all figured out and I know you're not claiming you do either. I like that you pointed out the paradoxes found in scripture. Seems like God has a habit of doing that (giving us 2 truths that seem to be at odds with each other, but are not).

I wonder how this works with love? (I'm just thinking out loud now) If man has no free will wouldn't love simply be a result of a sovereign move of God? Does that mean man cannot "choose" to love God? I don't know...lots to think about. Thanks for making me (I mean it was really my choice) think. ;)