What’s So Great About Predestination? (Part 2)

My Lord, I did not choose You, For that could never be;

My heart would still refuse You, Had You not chosen me.

You took the sin that stained me, You cleansed me, made me new;

Of old You have ordained me, That I should live in You.

Unless Your grace had called me and taught my opening mind,

The world would have enthralled me, To heavenly glories blind.

My heart knows none above You; For Your rich grace I thirst;

I know that if I love You, You must have loved me first.

Josiah Conder

In all things…charity.

By now you may have been able to tell that I am a Calvinist. This means that I think that the words of the hymn above are true, beautiful and deeply moving.

I became a Calvinist long before I read a single word from John Calvin. It was through reading the Bible that I became convinced that our salvation is by God’s sovereign grace alone. I think that Arminianism is deeply flawed in its understanding of the gospel and it impoverishes our appreciation of God’s grace. I also love my Arminian brothers and sisters.

Surprised?

Two notable evangelists famously disagreed on the subject of predestination. Those evangelists were George Whitefield (a Calvinist) and John Wesley (an Arminian). Despite the strength of their disagreement they regarded one another as brothers in Christ. When a follower of Whitefield’s asked him if he thought we would see Wesley in heaven, he replied; “…we won’t see him in heaven. He will be so close to the Throne of God and we will be so far away, that we won’t be able to see him!”

Although I want to persuade you that a Calvinistic understanding of predestination is more biblical than its Arminian counterpart, it is important that we remember that we were not baptised into Calvin or Arminius but into Christ. As long as our disagreements do not concern matters essential to the Christian faith then, even if we strongly disagree over important issues, we should remember that we are one in Christ.

Isn’t this discussion a needless distraction from the gospel?

Although I admit there is some danger that we may be distracted from our mission to make disciples, I think that it is worth the risk for the following reasons:

First, even though Calvinists and Arminians preach the same gospel, their understanding of that one gospel is significantly affected. This in turn has an impact on the way we understand other biblical concepts like assurance, evangelism, discipleship etc.

Secondly, I can honestly say that nothing has transformed my faith more powerfully than the Bible’s teaching on God’s sovereign grace. Central to these doctrines is a correct understanding of predestination.

As I’ve mentioned before, my concern is not to create Calvinists per se but rather to make sure that we are not missing out on the benefits of taking God at His Word. I want us to be able to bless God for predestination and election, as Paul does, rather than move quickly past it before anyone says something uncomfortable.

Charitable Calvinism in Practice

At this point you may be wondering what exactly is meant by “Calvinism” and “Arminianism”. Below is a conversation between Charles Simeon and John Wesley. Simeon is the one who asks the questions and Wesley is the one who answers. I know of few better descriptions of Calvinism than that this one. It is also a fantastic example of how to deal with one another in love. In the interests of fairness, I think I should note that many Arminians could not answer as Wesley does. This is why I think it is a great definition of Calvinism but not of Arminianism.

Sir, I understand that you are called an Arminian; and I have been sometimes called a Calvinist; and therefore I suppose we are to draw daggers. But before I consent to begin the combat, with your permission I will ask you a few questions. Pray, Sir, do you feel yourself a depraved creature, so depraved that you would never have thought of turning to God, if God had not first put it into your heart?

Yes, I do indeed.

And do you utterly despair of recommending yourself to God by anything you can do; and look for salvation solely through the blood and righteousness of Christ?

Yes, solely through Christ.

But, Sir, supposing you were at first saved by Christ, are you not somehow or other to save yourself afterwards by your own works?

No, I must be saved by Christ from first to last.

Allowing, then, that you were first turned by the grace of God, are you not in some way or other to keep yourself by your own power?

No.

What then, are you to be upheld every hour and every moment by God, as much as an infant in its mother’s arms?

Yes, altogether.

And is all your hope in the grace and mercy of God to preserve you unto His heavenly kingdom?

Yes, I have no hope but in Him.

Then, Sir, with your leave I will put up my dagger again; for this is all my Calvinism; this is my election, my justification by faith, my final perseverance: it is in substance all that I hold, and as I hold it; and therefore, if you please, instead of searching out terms and phrases to be a ground of contention between us, we will cordially unite in those things wherein we agree. (Moule, 79f)

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What is so great about predestination? (part 1)

What’s so great about predestination?

There are few issues that have caused greater controversy in the Church’s history than the doctrines of election and predestination. From Augustine and Pelagius, John Calvin and Jacob Arminius, George Whitefield and John Wesley, and more recently Michael Horton and Roger Olsen, Christians have argued for and against God’s sovereign election.

Yet when Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, he seems to think that this doctrine is precious to the believer and should be a source of blessing and encouragement to them. Given the number of questions and comments I received about this after my first sermon on Ephesians, I thought it may be helpful to take a few Contact articles to define what the Bible teaches about the subject and to clarify how it benefits our Christian lives.

My concern is not merely that you land on the right side of a historical debate (Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism and Arminianism were all condemned as heresy) but that your Christian lives are enriched and strengthened by the Bible’s teaching. I  want you to see the life-changing beauty of the biblical doctrines of sovereign grace.

What is predestination?

Lets begin by clarifying what predestination actually means.

“(Gk. proorízō).* The divine determination of human beings to eternal salvation or eternal damnation.”

“the theological notion that God has planned history and things take place according to God’s predetermined plan.”

God’s foreordination of persons to a particular end, most commonly to a particular eternal destiny and less commonly to a particular vocation or to a particular task.

These three definitions, taken from Eerdman’s, HarperCollins and Lexham Bible dictionaries respectively, make it plain that predestination refers to God’s sovereign work of predetermining our eternal destiny according to His purpose.

So what is the problem?

Christians have struggled with the idea of predestination because it seems to be at odds with “free will”. Some have also raised objections on the basis that it undermines God’s justice, saying that it is not fair for God to choose some and not others. Others have objected on the basis of God’s love, asserting that God would not “predestine” people for judgement.

The evangelist John Wesley, under pressure from George Whitefield on this subject, famously summed up these objections when he said that predestination…

“…destroys all His attributes at once.  It overturns both his justice, mercy and truth.  Yea, it represents the most Holy God as worse than the devil…. But you say you will ‘prove it by Scripture’.  Hold!  What will you prove by Scripture?  That God is worse than the devil?  It cannot be.  Whatever that Scripture proves, it never can prove this…”

Is it really worth the hassle?

The comment by Wesley sums up the difficulties for both sides of the debate. On the one hand, to embrace predestination seems to create difficulties for our faith in God’s love and justice. On the other hand, to ignore predestination is to ignore the plain teaching of the Bible.

God’s sovereignty in election and predestination is a fairly major biblical theme. It doesn’t just come up a few times in obscure passages but is the major thrust of some very important sections of the Bible.

For example, here are a few of the passages outside of Ephesians that explicitly teach us about predestination and election: Matthew 11: 27-30; Mark 4: 10-12; John 6: 44-46 & 63-65; 1 Peter 1:1 & 2 Peter 1: 10; Romans 8: 28-30; Romans 9: 6-24.

So yes it is worth it. Even though we may find it difficult to get our heads around some of these passages, Christians are people who take the Bible seriously. No matter how hard, we should always live in the light of the Word of God, trusting His goodness and wisdom even when His thoughts are not our thoughts.

In the next article we will begin to look more closely at what the Bible teaches about predestination and why it is so essential for Christian life and faith.

Verse of the Year (part 3)

The Sufficiency of Christ

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3: 7-11)

We have noted so far in the series that the central pillar of true Christian discipleship is knowing and treasuring Jesus.

If we take a step back and look at this verse in its wider context then we can see that true discipleship is intimately connected to our understanding of what Jesus has done for us through his death on the Cross. We cannot know or treasure Jesus in any meaningful way unless we are convinced that we are clothed in His righteousness.

This is what Paul means when he says:

“not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.”

The message of the gospel is not merely that we are forgiven. It is that righteousness is imputed to us. In other words, the good news is not simply that it is “as if we never sinned” (as wonderful as that is) but also “as if we have always obeyed.” This is what Paul believed and this is why he valued Christ above everything else.

If we are to know and enjoy Christ in our lives, we need to avoid legalism at all costs. We diminish the value of Christ in our own minds if we fall into the trap of thinking that we need something besides him to make our lives acceptable in God’s sight. If I trust in a combination of Christ’s work and my own moral performance, I am telling myself that Jesus is not that great a treasure. It means that we believe he is not able to save all on his own. This is an attitude that stems from idolatry, not from faith in God’s Word. It comes from a pride that asserts our importance rather than Christ’s sufficiency.

Jesus is all-sufficient. Through his death on the Cross, Jesus suffered the wrath that we deserved. Not only this, he satisfied the righteous requirements of the law on our behalf. He took our sin and guilt. He gave us his perfect obedience. God now looks upon all those who trust in Christ as if they have always kept the law perfectly.

Knowing Jesus is the greatest treasure we could ever have precisely because he is the all we need to be made right with God. If we have Christ we need nothing else. We are secure. In the words of Augustus M. Toplady:

A debtor to mercy alone, of covenant mercy I sing;
Nor fear, with Thy righteousness on, my person and off’ring to bring.
The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do;
My Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

Verse of the Year (Part 2)

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…” Philippians 7-8 (NIV 2011)

All things are rubbish compared to knowing Jesus

Last month we began to look at our verse for 2015. We saw that what makes us true followers of Jesus Christ is that we know Jesus. Christians are fundamentally “God-knowers” who walk in personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

This month I would like to focus on what this passage teaches us not only about knowing Jesus but about treasuring Him. If we truly do know Jesus then we know that we have a treasure of surpassing worth.

What does it mean that we consider all things “loss” compared to knowing Jesus?

Jesus + Nothing = Everything

It means that we would rather have Jesus than everything the world holds as valuable. As Tullian Tchividjian so eloquently put it: Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Christians should be able to live in joyful contentment throughout every circumstance. If we have nothing in this world we still have everything one could ever want and need.

We are joyful even when we are without money, without health, without comfort, without family, without appreciation, without shelter, without food and water, without security. No matter whatever else we lose, we have Jesus. We can count all of our hardships in this life as “light and momentary troubles” compared to the “weighty and lasting glory” of knowing Jesus.

Everything – Jesus = Nothing

We can say that the inverse is also true: Everything – Jesus = Nothing. In fact, remove Jesus from our lives and they become not simply nothing, but less than nothing: we run at an infinite loss. Therefore knowing and treasuring Jesus is not only our source of joy in a world of hardship, it is also our source of contentment in a world of greed.

I doubt there has ever been such an impulsive, consumerist society as ours. We are one click away from buying all kinds of things on Amazon or Ebay that we think will make us happier, more fulfilled people. Yet Christians should be able to rise above the fray of retail therapy and walk through this life utterly content. We should be utterly content because our soul’s are satisfied by their union with Jesus.

We know that if we had all that the world could offer, and we did not have Jesus, then we would be utterly impoverished. It is as the hymn says:

“Riches I need not; nor man’s empty praise.

Be Thou my inheritance, now and always.”

Dear friends, let us strive to make Jesus the supreme treasure of our lives. Anything less is not worthy of Him.

Verse of the Year (Part 1)

The battle is for your heart

“But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ…”
Philippians 7-8 (NIV 2011)

You may have noticed that we have a new verse for the year and I think it is time I explained why. This is the first part in a series of articles which aims to show us how this particular passage should shape our lives this year.

One of the most frightening realities in the Bible is how often those who profess to be true worshipers of God are exposed to be false.

This reality was never more clearly and tragically displayed than in the Pharisees. One would expect the most zealous and orthodox of all the sects of Judaism to be the most excited about the arrival of their God. The Pharisees should have been Jesus’ most passionate disciples. Instead they hated him and systematically went about engineering his execution.

This should give us pause. Woe to any Evangelical who thinks they are not capable of the same self-deception. At the core of being a disciple of Jesus is knowing Him and treasuring Him. If you do not know Jesus and love him, then you are not a disciple of Jesus. It does not matter how correct your doctrine is, how many of the spiritual disciplines you have mastered, how long you have been a part of a local church, how gifted you are or how much people admire you. You are deceiving yourself.

This is critical for us as a fellowship. We are going to spend a lot of time thinking about spiritual growth, evangelism, missions, youth ministry, preaching, training, finances, theology and numerous other aspects of Christian and church life. If we take our eyes off Jesus as our supreme treasure then we fail.

Therefore the first lesson we learn from our verse of the year is to remember that being a Christian is foremost about the knowing Jesus. Is this still your main priority for 2015? Is this what you want most for your brothers and sisters at Bethesda?

“Happy New Year!”

These words are bandied about with some regularity during this time of year. However, when we wish someone a “happy” new year, what do we really mean?

“Blessed” New Year

The very first sermon I ever preached at Bethesda was on Psalm 1.

“Blessed is the one

who does not walk in step with the wicked

or stand in the way that sinners take

or sit in the company of mockers,

but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,

and who meditates on his law day and night.”

As I was preparing to preach on this passage, I was struck by the significance of that very first word. The Hebrew word translated “blessed” in our English Bibles is the word “אַשְׁרֵי“ʾ(ǎš·rê) meaning “happy”. This Psalm is teaching us how to be happy.

Do not listen to the World

The world is neither short of opinions on how to find happiness, nor timid in its expression of them. The vast majority of what we hear through media, conversations in the local pub, and sadly even some pulpits, is a mass of screaming lies. This new year we need to hear God’s warning that these things will destroy our happiness. They will not make us happy because, although they may bring momentary feelings of exhilaration, they ultimately lead to destruction.

Listen to God

Happiness comes through joyful meditation on the Bible’s instruction. God is the one who made us and therefore knows what is best for us. He knows what will make us happy and he desires our happiness. Therefore the key to a happy and blessed new year is listening to God’s instruction for our lives rather than the world’s instruction. Notice that it is not simply reading the Bible that is the key to happiness. Truly listening to God is constituted by two things: delightful and regular meditation on the Bible. This means that we need to give the Bible enough airtime in our lives to thrill our hearts and to sink in deeply enough to affect our thinking.

Word or world…some suggestions for application

  1. Be careful what you expose yourself to through media, particularly TV and internet.
  2. Ask God to help you discern worldly influences on your thinking. What lies have you been believing?
  3. Make Bible-saturation a priority. Schedule in time for frequent Bible exposure.
  4. Work hard to make sure you are not simply reading the Bible but enjoying it, and reflecting deeply on it. Here are a few tips on how to do this:
  • Less is more. Sometimes we move from one passage to another too quickly and don’t give it the time it needs to sink in. Why not use your sermon notes as daily devotions rather than another devotional or set of Bible reading notes.
  • Pray through every passage you read. Ask yourself, what should I pray for myself and others in response to this passage.
  • Look for the Messiah. Ask yourself how the passage (genuinely) points to Jesus’ person and work. Nothing will thrill your heart as much as a fresh glimpse of Him in your devotions.

The Wood from the Trees

When we move from Sunday to Sunday and from message to message we can often lose sight of the big picture of what God is teaching us through the letter as a whole. So here is an attempt to take a step back and remind you of the big picture. Hopefully this will help you to hold the individual Sunday messages together in your minds and apply them in your hearts.

Fighting for Joy in Philippians

At the heart of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a plea to fight for Joy in our Christian lives regardless of the circumstances. Rejoicing in Christ together is the key to survival as Christians. If we lose our joy then we will not last. Here is a reminder of the some of the exhortations we have seen so far:

  1. Rejoice over one another because your partnership in the gospel.
  2. Rejoice when your faith is under pressure because the gospel is advanced through our trials.
  3. Rejoice because your unity and courage in the face of opposition is a sign of your salvation.
  4. Rejoice in Christ-like humility and obedience; even if it leads to death.
  5. Rejoice in the Christ-like examples of godly men and women in the church.

Walking by Faith in Genesis

The account Abraham’s life in Genesis is an account of a man given an extraordinary promise and called to believe God against the odds. As Christians we are also called, like Abraham, to walk in the certainty of things hoped for and for things unseen. Here are some of the lessons we have learned from Abraham about what it means to live by faith in God’s promise.

  1. Walking by faith is an adventure of trust and obedience.
  2. Walking by faith will mean that our faith will be put under pressure.
  3. Walking by faith means trusting in God and giving him the glory for his protection.
  4. Walking by faith means resting in the assurance he has provided through his promise and his oath.
  5. Walking by faith means that we trust that God will always do what is right even if it is hard to understand.

Bear Fruit For God

My prayer is that God’s Word would continue to shape and mould us into the image of Jesus Christ and that these simple summaries will be helpful to that end.