As we search the scriptures honestly and diligently to find answers to our questions about various issues about living in God’s kingdom we will sometimes find ourselves in deep waters. Sometimes we will stumble upon verses that seem to point us back to the conclusions of our Calvinist brethren. Verses that are clearly about predestination and divine election will seem to jump off the page. The reason for this is that divine election, predestination, the radical corruption of mankind, and other similar topics are taught again and again in God’s word. These doctrines are wonderful and reveal the loving plan of God for the human race in general and his followers in particular. It is not these teachings that are dangerous, but the false understanding of them which is promoted by Calvinism. Understanding them is very important if we are going to come to a well-balanced understanding of our faith.
Out of the fear of falling into the errors of Calvinism many humble and hungry disciples avoid these “Calvinist verses” like the plague. When they pop up in the disciple’s daily Bible reading his stomach sinks. The result they have on the intimidated disciple is similar to what happens in the mind and heart of a third grade boy when he is unlucky enough to attract the unwanted attention of the playground bully. But just like the childhood bully that scared us into taking the long way home from school, the false interpretations of Calvinism are not as strong and overpowering as they like to pretend. Give the bully a good pop in the nose and his eyes will water like anyone else. This post is the second in a series of three (For the first post click here). These posts are like a crash-course in self-defense. And the basic principle is that the best defense is a good offense. Instead of avoiding the “Calvinist verses” we need to face them head on. Instead of being intimidated by the false meaning Calvinism has given them, we need to come to delight in them by understanding what they actually teach. They are not “Calvinist verses,” they are part of the revelation given by the Savior of the world.
Most of us have been to an amusement park at some point in our lives. While you are enjoying yourself, going from ride to ride, it is easy to get turned around. For this reason most theme parks will have maps posted around every corner. The first thing you will see when approaching one of these maps is a big red dot with the words, “You Are Here,” written above it. The park map doesn’t only tell you all the places you can go, but it also tells you where you are. Knowing where you are is the first step in getting where you want to be. The same principle applies to correctly interpreting the so-called Calvinist verses. As we discussed in the post, “Ground Rules of Interpretation”, context is key to understanding the meaning of any scripture.
Calvinists consistently misinterpret scriptures about issues like divine election and predestination because they consistently forget to pay attention to the context. Their conclusions are false because they don’t notice some very important contextual road maps. There are three common scriptural contexts that they particularly seem to ignore when dealing with passages that they have traditionally used to defend their position. We already looked at the context of the Jewish/Gentile controversy in the first post in this series, in the next 2 posts we will look at the other contexts Calvinism fails to fully recognize the importance of. We will take time to look at each of these contexts and look at some examples of each. By keeping these “You Are Here” markers in mind, the disciple will be able to navigate through all the twists and turns of scriptures that have often intimidated them.
Chosen for What?
Romans 9:10-12 (GWT):
“The same thing happened to Rebekah. Rebekah became pregnant by our ancestor Isaac. Before the children had been born or had done anything good or bad, Rebekah was told that the older child would serve the younger one. This was said to Rebekah so that God’s plan would remain a matter of his choice, a choice based on God’s call and not on anything people do.”
God’s unconditional election is taught clearly in this passage. Jacob had not done anything good, including believe, when God chose him. God had predestined him to eternal life before the foundation of the world. He did this to show that God’s plan for every person was a matter of his sovereign choice alone. It has nothing to do with what men do or believe.
Before we respond to Calvinism’s interpretation of this passage and put the passage in its proper context, let’s give the necessary conclusion of this interpretation. What applied to Jacob in the positive, must apply to Esau in the negative. If God decided before creation that Jacob would go to heaven, then he clearly chose that Esau would go to hell before the world began. And if he chose to give eternal life to Jacob unconditionally, without any consideration about what Jacob would do or believe; then it follows that God chose to send Esau to hell without any consideration of what he would do. The verse says that God’s choice of Jacob didn’t have to do with the good that he would do, but it also says that Esau wasn’t rejected because of the evil he would do. This means that Esau was not condemned to hell because of his sin, but because of God’s sovereign choice. Esau’s eternal destiny was not based on a just penalty for sin, but only on the right of God to choose his destiny. Neither “had done anything good or bad.”
I have heard modern teachers of Calvinism give Jacob’s side of this interpretation, but I have not heard any give Esau’s side. And I am sure they would object to such an interpretation, but if the interpretation they give for Jacob is correct, their interpretation must lead to this conclusion about Esau. If an unconditional election to eternal life is taught in this passage, so is an unconditional election to damnation. If this passage says Jacob didn’t go to heaven because of his good works or his faith, then it also says that Esau didn’t go to hell because of his sin or unbelief.
In another post we cover the entire context of Romans chapter 9. By reading that post you will better understand how this passage fits into that broad context. But since we are now looking at these verses in order to understand one contextual error that Calvinists often make, we will go ahead and take the time to interpret their immediate context here.
“And Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren. And the Lord granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her, and she said, ‘If this is thus, why is this happening to me?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, ‘Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.’ When her days to give birth were completed, behold, there were twins in her womb.”
The first mistake we find in the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9:10-12 is that they teach that the destinies of Jacob and Esau were decided from the foundation of the world. One of the Old Testament passages that Paul was referencing is found in Genesis 25:21-24. It says nothing about eternal predestination. It teaches that God told Rebekah about the future of her sons while they were in her womb. We are not told when God made his decision about them. We are only told that Rebekah learned of God’s plan while she was pregnant. The conclusion that this plan was predestined before the creation of the world is assumed by our Calvinist brethren because of their views about predestination, not because it is what this passage teaches.
But the contextual error we want to focus on here is that nothing is said about God choosing to send one brother to heaven and another to hell. It is clear that God chose these two brothers for different purposes, but nothing is mentioned or implied about their eternal destinies. God decided before they were born (without reference to what kind of character each of them would have) which one of them would inherit the promises of Abraham.
God had promised Abraham that his descendants would be formed into a great nation that would become a blessing to all the nations of the world. From the New Testament we understand that Israel became a blessing to all nations by being the nation that brought Christ into the world. Abraham had two sons, but it was his younger son, Isaac, that was given the promise of becoming a great nation. God then did the same thing with Isaac’s children. He chose that the older one, Esau, would serve the younger one, Jacob.
God told Rebekah that two nations were in her womb. No wonder she had a difficult pregnancy! The delivery must have been murder! Of course God meant that her sons would eventually become two nations. Which one would become the great nation that would bring the Savior of the world into the world? Jacob. Though, culturally speaking, Esau should have inherited the promise, God wanted to show that the salvation of the world was his plan. God had no intention of being culturally correct. The salvation of mankind was not dependent on human culture or the natural course of history; it was the divine plan of God. By choosing Isaac and Jacob instead of choosing Ishmael and Esau he was making that clear.
For What Purpose?
When we come across passages, like the one in Romans 9:10-12, that seem to prove that God unconditionally chooses certain individuals, we must ask what the passage teaches he is choosing them for. The case of Jacob and Esau is clear; Jacob was chosen to inherit Abraham’s promise as the father of God’s chosen people. He didn’t inherit Abraham’s salvation, he inherited Abraham’s destiny as the father of Israel. At this point my Calvinist brethren will object, “But Paul is talking about salvation in Romans 9, so the original context of Genesis is not applicable here.” They are correct in saying that Romans 9 is about salvation, they are in terrible error when they say that the context of Genesis does not affect Paul’s main point. We first must understand the example in its context and then ask why it was chosen and what it is supposed to prove.
In this case we must also ask why Paul uses this particular Old Testament example. Romans 9:6 tells us Paul’s main context. He is trying to tell us who “belongs to Israel.” He is arguing that Israel is chosen by grace through faith, not by ancestry. In the midst of arguing that we can’t be born into God’s people, he refers to Esau as an example of God’s right to ignore the cultural importance of ancestry and birthright. Paul uses Esau as an example of God’s right to pass over Israel and choose Gentiles who believe in Christ, even though Israel was the “firstborn.” God has the right to choose his people according to whatever conditions he determines, just as he had the right to choose the younger son instead of the elder to make the nation in the first place. God has the right to choose faith as the condition for salvation instead of ancestry. Romans 9:25-10:4 makes this point all too clear for those who are sincerely seeking to understand Paul’s meaning.
“You did not choose me, but I chose you…”
This is another verse that is used to teach that God chooses specifically which individuals will have eternal life. First we must ask who Jesus is speaking to. He is talking to his chosen apostles, except Judas. But to really understand the context we have to read more of the quoted verse. “…and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit…” The apostles were chosen to bear fruit, that is, they were chosen to bring others to Christ.
“But God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”
We can see that Jesus chose these men for a purpose. But just because he chose them for this ministry doesn’t mean that they would certainly go to heaven or even fulfill the purpose God had for their lives on earth. For even Judas was one of the “chosen” of the Lord.
“And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach.”
After the death of Judas and the resurrection of Christ, the Apostles had to choose someone to replace Judas as one of the twelve Apostles. They reaffirmed that Judas had been chosen as an Apostle.
“For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”
“Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.’ He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.
Does this mean that Judas was never a true believer, only an Apostle? This is not so clear. The Gospels seem to imply that Judas was a hypocrite who was helping himself to the money bag. John 6:64-71 tells us that Jesus knew that by that time, at least, Judas did not believe and would betray Him even though Jesus had chosen him. Had he always been an unbeliever, it is not so clear. But other passages give a different impression. It seems God desired more for him. Jesus considered him an “insider” and gave him the “secrets of the kingdom” (Mark 4:10-11). This secret included knowing who the Son was by receiving revelation from the Father and knowing the Father through the revelation of the Son. Those who had this revelation were able to rejoice that their names were “written in heaven” (Luke 10:17-24). And Jesus planned to give his twelve Apostles, including Judas, a throne in his future kingdom. But more importantly, he planned for Judas, who had left everything to follow him, to “inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:27-29). So was Judas ever a true believer, it is debatable.
So did, being chosen as an Apostle guarantee that Judas would inherit all that God desired for him? As one called to labor in Christ’s kingdom he knew that his throne in the age to come was only ensured to him if he finished his mission. He had heard the warning, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). And if he was hoping for eternal life, he was to told, “Because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matt. 24:12-13).
The Apostle Paul also declares that he was chosen by the Lord.
Galatians 1:15-16 (GWT)
“But God, who appointed before I was born and who called me by his kindness, was pleased to show me his Son. He did this so that I would tell people who are not Jewish that his Son is the Good News.”
If we read verse 15 out of its context, with Calvinist errors on our mind, we might assume Paul was predestined to eternal before he was born. But when we read verse 16 we understand what God had appointed him for. Elsewhere we are told the purpose of his election.
“But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.’”
As a believer in Christ he knew that his “election” as an Apostle did not guarantee that he would inherit eternal life. He understood that the truth given to all Christians, “Without holiness, no one will see the Lord,” applied to the chosen Apostles of the Lord as well.
1 Corinthians 9:27
“But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
We must be careful not to assume that every time the Bible speaks of God “choosing” people it is talking about the issue of salvation. The Eleven and Paul fulfilled their callings as Apostles and as Christians. But Judas forfeited his share in both ministry and salvation (if he was ever saved). We never read of individuals being unconditionally chosen for eternal life in the Bible. Often those that believe in the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election blur verses that speak of being “chosen” for a particular task and being chosen for salvation. We can avoid this error by asking who the passage says is being chosen, and more importantly, what they are being chosen for.