John Calvin Got Paul Right

Preston Sprinkle —  March 10, 2012 — 22 Comments

I ended my last post with the bold assertion that Calvin got Paul’s understanding of salvation right. The claim is somewhat ridiculous; no single interpreter has captured the full contours of Paul’s (or any other biblical writer’s) theology. So let me explain what I mean.

After studying Paul’s’ understanding of salvation and comparing his view with that of the Essenes (as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls), it seems rather clear to me that Paul emphasized the priority of God’s agency more consistently and thoroughly than any other ancient writings of his day. And inasmuch as John Calvin emphasized this too, I think he was correct.

Let me be more specific. In the first century, Jewish people knew the nation of Israel still stood under the curse of the covenant for (continually) breaking the law (Deut 28; Lev 26). The covenant that God made with the nation on Sinai, in other words, ended in failure (see Jer 11), and Jewish people living in the days of Jesus knew it. “So how do we fix it?” they wondered. “How do we get right with God?” For most Jews, they would say that we “repent and return to the law.” After all, isn’t this exactly what Deuteronomy says (Deut 4:29-31; 30:1-10)?

Well, yes it does, but Deuteronomy (and the Prophets) also says that people have hard hearts (Deut 29:4) and simply can’t return to God under their own power. No matter how loud the prophets preached, no matter how many curses God rained down, people simply cannot repent and turn to God. “If a leopard can change its spots,” says Jeremiah, “then you too can do who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23). Or in the words of Paul, “there is no one who seeks after God, no, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12). We are all dead as a doornail and cannot turn to God unless God first turns to us and declares us to be righteous even though we are wicked (Rom 4:4-5; 5:8-11). God must create faith in us and must cause us to obey if we are going to be in a right relationship with Him.

“Wait a minute,” you might say. “Cause us to obey? That’s taking things a little too far.”

But this is exactly what Ezekiel promised and what Paul believes took place through Calvary and Pentecost. God caused you to believe, repent, and then obey. Deep into the Old Testament, Ezekiel promised that God would “put His Spirit within you and cause you to walk in His commandments” (36:27). And for the few of you who care, the Hebrew word asah is in the hifil, which emphasizes causation. In fact, such radical emphasis on divine agency floods Ezekiel’s entire prophecy in chapters 36-37 and becomes a vital Old Testament text for our New Testament understanding of salvation. For instance, Jesus, Paul, and others often talk about the “Spirit that gives life,” or the “Spirit of life” (Rom 8:1-11; 2 Cor 3:3-6; John 6:63), and when they do, they are thinking of Ezekiel’s radical emphasis on divine agency being fulfilled in their midst. Not only did Ezekiel promise that the Spirit would cause God’s people to obey, but in Ezekiel 37 he promised that the same Spirit would breathe life into dead bones that were very dry. This “dry bones vision” becomes a paradigm, in the NT, for how God saves people. He unilaterally (i.e., by Himself) breathes life into them.

Leopards don’t change their spots, dead bones can’t manufacture life, and you didn’t turn to God. God turned to you.

All that to say, Paul emphasized the priority of divine agency in salvation. Since we are utterly depraved and incapable of turning to God, God must take the initiative to unilaterally infuse us with faith, obedience, and Spirit-generated life.

Now, you Calvinists may wonder what all the hub-bub is about. Nothing I’ve said is all that original, nor is it much different than what you can learn from any Systematic theology class (at some schools, anyway). But what I have discovered from studying the Dead Sea Scrolls is that Paul’s decided emphasis on divine agency in salvation was unparalleled in first century Judaism. Interestingly, even the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, did not underscore God’s agency in salvation as comprehensively and intricately as Paul. And—this is important—of all the Jews in the first century, the Essenes were the so-called “hyper Calvinists” of the ancient world. According to Josephus, they believed that God controls everything, and yet according to their own writings, even they don’t emphasize God’s work in salvation to the same degree as Paul.

So, writing academic books can be water to the soul, believe it or not. Because when I woke up this morning, I wasn’t the best father, I was inadequate as a husband, and I fell far short of being a “good Christian.” But God still loves me just the same, because His love is dictated not by what I do but by what Christ has done. And this unconditioned, unilateral, one-way love that we call “grace” is not just a Christianeze buzz word, but the controlling and life-sustaining power that transforms us from offensive enemies to real ingredients of divine joy.

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Preston Sprinkle

Preston Sprinkle

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I'm married to a beautiful wife and we have four kids (3 girls and a boy). I've been teaching college level Bible and Theology classes for a few years now (since 2007), and enjoy hanging out with my family, running, surfing, and life in SoCal. Before I became a teacher, I was in school. Lots and lots of school. I did a B.A. and M.Div here in SoCal, and then did a Ph.D. in Scotland in NT studies. Before coming to EBC, I taught at Nottingham University for a semester, and Cedarville University for a couple of years. Along with surfing, I also love to research and write, and I've written a few things on Paul, Early Judaism, and Hell.
  • Timespanr

    Each Shall be Judged on the Day of Judgement for all that they personally have done, thought to do or DID. I don’t make two hoots or 1 hollar what Jesus has or did not do.
    We have Jesus, Accepted as Fact, we do not have the remaufacted Jesus.
    How can you, How do you in any logical context study the Holy Bible, in totality, cover to cover, which i do, NOT as a Christian, but as a Believer and fail to Understand the term God in the total context of the Book (3,500 to remaufactured 700 years)
    And then, do I believe the Aramic Verion? or the Hebrew Version, or the Latin Verion, of the Greek Verion, or the WASP Christian Version, final in 1611?
    Im sorry to have to be the one to tell you the facts of life…but your “Religion” is a Creation by, alowed by, print by hand by in 50 copies, a MAN, a human being name Constantine I in 324 AD, printing in 331 AD of First Every Bible. Admittedly, it makes refrence to God, some copies of work reported to be of God but the bottem line here is the your book requires one very large leap of faith in the Roman Catholic Church (they put this whole story together my friends) and I must say didnot do a very good job of doings. Example 39 Chapter in OT vs 27 Chapter in the New – my first thought was, is, this a Jewish Bible or what?
    Then we find in the NT (New Testament) 27 Chapters – Six (6) dealing with a Jewish Man (It is established in the Laws of Judia, that if you are a Jew, you must be referred to a Jewish Court – which Jesus was – prior to be Crossed. the we find twelve (12) chapters on another Jew, born in Tarsus Turkey, as Saul of Tarsus (aka Paul) who pointedly alters or changes everything that Jesus has done or suggested? Who was this Saul guy anyway? Born as the son of a Tent maker, he in his infanate wisdom goes to Jerusalem, and joints the Police Force, and beings a trail of Terror against all Gentiles ? (Term Gentiles refers to any one NOT Jewish) The Name Saul was so in distain amoung the “Gentiles” that his dis sevice became know far and wide even as far a Rome, who incidently late on brought about his demise. oh, before I forget, we still have eleven other chapters, all of which a highly influenced by Saul, or were change, or were selected during the book creation to fit.
    Also if you find yourself think that Jesus, or Jesus Church, or thats run on Religion was out side the Torah (Jewish Bible) I would ask, in this day in age, that you produce document FOR of the CASE. The first reference to the term Christian are betwqee 20 – 324AD take your choice.
    Now your next should be, fit what, was (is) the RCC trying to accomplish here (1) Have the First Recogined “Christian Religion” (2) have the first recognised Book on their “Religion)
    We all living in the modern age have access to more information than ever before in the History of Man.
    Yet, for some unknown reason, we continue to choose to ignor it or listen to some minister or preacher talk about esoteric trash, never directly reference page and paragraph, (pairse be to those who do).

    What can we, and possibly what do we agree upon

    1 With all of the Majisty, the Creation of Heaven & Earth I think that it is safe to say the is A GOD,
    Further, Having read the Torat, the Talmud, the Tanakha, (Jewish Text) Refernce Yahwah – One only God, the Quran and reference of One and Only God (Islam of Muslim Test)
    I was, I am and I will be more than amased at RCC creation, the Coping of that Creation, in the re-creation of 3,500 years of accepted writing following the ONE GOD Conecpt and establishing a TRINTY.
    What I would simply imply, READ understand your history.
    Understand, no matter you call Saul (aka Paul) who never saw Jesus even at a distance, once in his life making comment isd laughable atleast.
    Read and understand what say about Lepards Changing their Spots

    Yes there in God, if you donot understand that in this life, you will surely understand him in the next.
    Yes, there was a Jewish Man, called Jesus, who by virtue of his deeds, could, and should be identified as a Prophet of God. Oft rejecting the suggestion his Apostles as having done anything, but, by and through the grace of God.

    I hope that you will read this short distraction in your day and possible come to learn or understand that WE believe in the Message, we just have a problem with mans taking over the MESSAGE.

  • Michael Hoff

    Wow! I wonder how many others have read all the way through this discussion. I have been through this before while studying the topic with a friend. We did not come to the same conclusions. There are two wonderful books on the subject by the same guy; Robert Shank, Elect in the Son and Life in the Son.

    My studies lead me to believe closely to what Julie is stating above. My friend still thinks the other way. We both admit that some text can be used to confirm views on both sides of this equation. In the end, I can not come to the conclusion that God made people he never intended to offer a chance for salvation.

    Thanks for the discussion though.

    Mike

  • Julie

    Me again. 🙂 Sure you meant what you said, “Please drop in again”? 😉

    After rereading one of your posts above, I thought I should respond more thoroughly. You wrote, “In your first few paragraphs, you acknowledge my point about Ezekiel, but then use a bunch of other OT passages (which Ezekiel certainly endorsed, as you said) to show that human initiative is still a precondition for God’s restoration of Israel (if I’ve understood you correctly).”

    I’m not sure you do understand me correctly on this particular point. I wasn’t using a bunch of OT passages (Deut. 30:1-3; 2 Chron. 7:14; Neh. 1:8-9) to show that human initiative (without God’s empowerment) is a precondition for God’s restoration of Israel. I was using the passages to show that God required Israel to repent BEFORE He would restore them. Repentance FIRST and THEN restoration. I didn’t say the repentance was without God’s empowerment.

    What you didn’t respond to was the Scriptural support that shows that they FIRST had to ask Him to turn them (Lam. 5:21; Psalm 80:3; 85:4).

    Speaking of the dry bones metaphor, you wrote, “God must take the first step toward us before we come to him.” The dry bones, Israel, already knew of God. God already “took the first step.” The dry bones metaphor is a portrayal of God empowering them to repent AFTER they ask Him to turn them.

    • Hey again,

      From bottom up.

      The dry bones didn’t ask God to turn to them. They didn’t DO or SAY anything. They were dead. That’s the point. They had no desire for God, no desire to repent: nothing. But God breathed life into them, and gave them a new heart and new spirit SO THAT they would obey (which included repentance). God acts first, gives life, then we (those who have been regenerated) respond in faith, obedience, and repentance.

      I know this sounds all “Calvinisitic” but I don’t mean it to me, and I didn’t derive it from Calvin. It just seems to be straight out of Ezek 36:22-37:14 and many other Prophetic passages.

      Julie, your other points are very good. So if I’m hearing you, you are arguing for divinely empowered repentance as the first step toward restoration (i.e. God’s restoration of Israel). So it’s not humanity vs. God; it’s God empowering humanity to take the first step toward him.

      I still don’t quite agree with this reading, but I do think that it’s well-thoughtout and does, in fact, correlate with some OT books like Deuteronomy and Chronicles.

      Again, I’ve got a real long chapter in a forthcoming book that spells out my position on who I think all this fits together. I agree (to some extent) with your reading of Deut, Chron, and others. I only want to argue that as Israel’s history progresses, the nation keeps getting worse, and worse, and ends up in such a bad state that the Prophets (Ezek, Jer, Isa) come along and say: “You guys are so jacked up that you CAN’T do what Moses told you to do. God must do it for you.” So I think it’s more of a both/and along a narrative progression, if that makes any sense.

      Great discussion!

      What’s your story, Julie? Do you go to Cornerstone?

      • Julie

        Preston,

        Glad you got my email. I read the chapter you sent me, but I still want to go over it more thoroughly.

        I understand that the old covenant preconditions of walking in repentance could never ultimately work with only human effort. All men need God’s empowerment to walk in repentance, then and now. There were OT saints (remnant) who were empowered by God to walk in repentance (not saying they were “enlivened” and “saved” in a NT sense).

        You said that the “dry bones” did not cry out to the Lord to turn them, but Ezek. 33:10 shows cut off Israel crying out in despair. Ezek. 37: 11 also shows them crying out in despair: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel; behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope has perished. We are completely cut off.’” This shows that they recognize their dire situation BEFORE they’re “enlivened” in the vision of the dry bones.

        Scripture reveals that before God will turn Israel, they must ask to be turned (Lam. 5:21; Psalm 80:3; 85:4).

        You still haven’t explained why you believe Jesus’ drawing is limited. On what basis do you distinguish between literal and figurative uses of “all” in Scripture?

  • Julie

    Okay, I’ll send you an email.

    I’m okay with taking God at His word, but sometimes it’s a challenge in determining what His word is truly saying.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like you believe Scripture teaches that God creates countless human beings without ever intending to reach out to them in any way. And that all of these human beings will suffer for eternity in the lake of fire. Is that correct?

    So, it’s possible that at the first breath of your newborn baby, God looks into his/her eyes and says, “Although I knitted you together in your mother’s womb, I have no intention of drawing you to Myself…I don’t know you and I never will…and there will be no end to your suffering.” If what you say is true about what Scripture teaches, this is reasonable, yes?

    You wrote, “…God calls to Himself those whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world. This is clearly how God worked with Israel. He chose them before they ever chose Him.” I completely agree with this. God unconditionally chose Israel before its conception—before any one member of Israel was born. What Scripture does not say is that God unconditionally chooses any one individual before the foundation of the world…well, except Jesus. God chose Israel before they chose Him, but we see that not every individual within that chosen nation was a genuine worshipper of God. God determined the salvation of each individual member of the chosen nation of Israel on an individual basis.

    Although there is a parallel with the Body of Christ, it’s an imperfect parallel because people were born into the nation of Israel and enjoyed the covenant blessings of the nation whether they were genuine worshippers of God or not. People are baptized by the Holy Spirit into the chosen Body of Christ and will enjoy the many eternal blessings of what has been promised to this chosen group.

    My point is that God chose a group (whether it was Israel then or the Body of Christ now) long before its conception, and all who align themselves with this chosen group (through birth for Israel & through faith for the BoC) possess all the covenant blessings assigned to this chosen group. We can also see the similarity in that God chose a man, Abraham, out of whom the group would grow, and a man, Jesus, out of whom the group would grow.

    I think what confuses people is because Scripture also teaches that God chooses individuals. Sometimes for vocation and, yes, also for salvation. But God chooses an individual for salvation based on if they respond to Jesus’ drawing or not. I don’t believe one who resists the conviction of the Holy Spirit can respond to His drawing. And God knows who is and who is not responding to the conviction of the Spirit long before He chooses them for salvation. So, God can genuinely say, “I chose you, you did not choose Me.”

    You agree that Jesus can draw spiritually dead people. But you believe that drawing is limited. Why? As I mentioned, there has to be sound exegesis on these texts such as John 12:32 demonstrating that Jesus is asserting something less than “I will draw all men to Myself.” On what basis do you distinguish between literal and figurative uses of “all” in Scripture?

  • Julie

    Yeah, that was a long one. But I love this stuff! Why can’t you respond to everything I’ve said? 🙁 Not appropriate for these kinds of blogs?

    Yes, I am interested in reading your position on these tensions in the OT. Should I email you or can you see my email on this blog somewhere?

    Here’s an extremely simplified explanation of what I see that Scripture teaches. No man can seek God, so God seeks man first. God seeks ALL men (no man is excluded). Some resist Him and some do not resist Him. Those who call out for mercy, God hears and turns and saves.

    Would you agree that Scripture teaches the above?

    • email me and I’ll send you some stuff.

      As far as my short response, it’s just a time thing.

      Ya, what you say, “that God seeks ALL people,” would be one valid way of looking at some passages, but ultimately, no, I don’t agree with it. I still think that the Bible teaches what systematics call “unconditional election” and “particular redemption,” that God calls to Himself those whom he has chosen before the foundation of the world. This is clearly how God worked with Israel. He chose them before they ever chose him. In fact, did Israel even choose God? It seems like God chose them when they didn’t, and continued to not, choose Him. Romans 9 seems to say this clearly.

      But, as I hinted at before, these are age old debates that take a lifetime to understand and there are solid people on boths sides. At the end of the day, we all must affirm, with the Psalmist, that “God is in the heavens and He does whatever He pleases.” We must simply look at His word to see “what he pleased” to do and take Him at His word.

      Preston
      preston@eternitybiblecollege.com

  • Julie

    Hey, Preston! Well, it’s a long one. 🙂

    You wrote, “This is simply inaccurate. Nowhere in Ezekiel’s salvation oracles (chs. 34-48) is it foreseen that Israel will repent first and that God will respond to their repentance. It just ain’t there. Now, while it’s true that there are calls for repentance (e.g. chs. 18, 33). But while there may be many CALLS for Israel to return to her God, the relationship is never restored through a human act of repentance.”

    Even though Ezekiel’s oracles do not spell out the need for Israel’s repentance first before God will respond to their repentance and rescue them, his oracles are most certainly informed by it. Ezekiel is built on the foundation of Moses’ Torah where this is spelled out: “So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the Lord your God has banished you, and YOU RETURN to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, THEN the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you” (Deut. 30:1-3). Return (i.e. repentance first), and THEN the Lord will respond to their repentance.

    This model is affirmed in Solomon’s prayer: “IF my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and TURN from their wicked ways; THEN I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chron. 7:14). TURN (i.e. repentance first), and THEN the Lord will respond to their repentance.

    The condition of repentance for God’s response to Israel was paramount in the minds of the exiles: “Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; but IF you RETURN to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell” (Neh. 1:8-9). Again, we see that repentance comes first and THEN the Lord responds to their repentance.

    You wrote, “And, second, the same is true of Jeremiah. Yes, there is a call to circumcise their hearts, but as the book unfolds, it’s clear that can’t, which is why the salvation oracle of Jer 31-32 (emphasized divine agency as the formal cause of repentance).”

    Although I don’t agree with the idea that God commands Israel to circumcise their hearts merely to demonstrate they can’t, no one can walk in repentance without the power of God’s Spirit. But that power is not inflicted upon anyone involuntarily. Jeremiah summarizes the human condition: “Turn us back to you, O Lord, and we will turn back to You” (Lam. 5:21). God must do the turning, but the people must first ask God to do that turning. God doesn’t force repentance on us. All we can do in our weakness is cry out for Him to turn us and He will empower us to turn and save us. “Turn us again to yourself, O God, make your face shine down upon us. Only then will we be saved” (Psalm 80:3). “Turn us, O God of our salvation, and cause thine indignation toward us to cease” (Psalm 85:4). As I previously wrote, our cry for God’s mercy is simply recognition of our dire situation—that we can’t save ourselves and that we can’t walk in repentance without God’s empowerment. It certainly is all God’s doing, but God will not respond to us until we cry out to Him.

    You wrote, “Third, the idea of ‘dead as a doornail’ is drawn from Ezek 36:26-27; 37:1-14; Eph 2:1-3 (‘BY NATURE children of wrath’).”

    I think we’re approaching Ezek. 36:26-27 differently. You read, “I will put My Spirit in them” assuming that’s because they cannot turn to Him. I read it assuming that’s because they have turned to Him (because they have approached Him with the desire to be turned). The valley of the dry bones metaphor for Israel is similar in that it is a portrayal of God empowering them as they come to their senses and seek Him (have a desire to be turned) and He restores them. This is in line with the Deuteronomy passage “return to the Lord, THEN the Lord your God will restore you from captivity, etc.” They can’t do it without God empowering them to walk in repentance—to “cause” them to walk in His commandments—but they must cry out to Him first.

    In regards to Eph. 2:1-3, we are dead in sin until God enlivens us, but God is not incapable of communicating to spiritually dead people. The example I previously gave of Cornelius shows us that God is capable of communicating mutually with a spiritually dead individual. Cornelius was a worshipper of God (Acts 10:2) and heard by God (Acts 10:4) before he was regenerated (Acts 11:14).

    I have a question for you. If your claim is that a spiritually dead man can’t be drawn, then when does the drawing take place for the elect? Aren’t the elect spiritually dead until the moment they’re enlivened? What’s the purpose of the drawing process if it doesn’t work on spiritually dead men?

    You wrote, “Fifth, I’d suggest looking at the variegated way in which biblical writers use the word ‘all’ (e.g. your reference to John 1 and 12). ‘All’ doesn’t usually mean ‘every single person of humanity,’ otherwise, Paul would have put on one killer revival service when he ‘preached to all people everywhere’ (Acts 21:28). See too Mark 1:5 and many, many other passages.”

    Although “all” doesn’t always mean “every single person of humanity,” sometimes it does. Acts 21:28 and Mark 1:5 don’t make sense if we define “all” as “every single person of humanity.” When read in context, it becomes clear that the use of “all” in Acts is an exaggeration of Paul’s opponents and that the use of “all” in Mark is a permissible hyperbole in a historical narrative emphasizing the early widespread acceptance of John and of Jesus by the people. Thus, we must define “all” as “less than every single person of humanity” in those cases. There’s no reason to believe that Jesus is using hyperbole when He claims to draw “all” men to himself, and there’s no reason to believe John is using hyperbole when he claims that Jesus enlightens “every” man. And both statements still make perfect sense if we define “all” and “every” as “every single person of humanity.” There has to be sound exegesis on these texts such as John 12:32 demonstrating that Jesus is asserting something less than “I will draw all men to Myself.” On what basis do you distinguish between literal and figurative uses of “all” in Scripture?

    You wrote, “You suggested: ‘I would have liked to repent but God didn’t cause me to repent like He did with others.’ It’s the ‘I would have liked to’ part that I don’t think Scripture teaches. Again, I think that Rom 1:18-23 (and others) says that no one would have liked to turn to God, but if they do, then it’s because God first turned to them.”

    I think my second paragraph above addresses this. God responds to those who cry out to Him (by the way, they cry out only because they’ve been drawn). He will hear them and empower them to turn and walk, and He will save them (Lam. 5:21; Psalm 80:3; 85:4). I agree that no one would have liked to repent if He had not sought them and drawn them first. But as we see with Scripture, God enlightens EVERY man and Jesus draws ALL men. And even if “every” and “all” means “every single person of humanity,” can God communicate with spiritually dead people? Can God draw spiritually dead men? If He can do it with the unregenerated elect, why can’t He do it with anyone He wants to?

    You wrote, “In short, I think the words about Israel’s depravity have a universal truth to them, so that they can be applied to all humanity.”

    Although I don’t necessarily think that Jeremiah’s comment should be used as evidence that all men are born depraved (as far as I know, leopards aren’t born with spots), I do believe that Scripture teaches that all men are sinners and are unable to do a thing about it. They cannot change themselves through human effort.

    You wrote, “When the Psalms say that “there is none righteous, not even one…all have turned aside…there is none who seek after God” I really think that he agreed with the universal claims therein, which fits in with his overarching argument in 1:18-3:20.”

    I agree. There is none who seek after God. It is a universal claim. That’s why Jesus’ drawing is also universal. Those who cry out in their weakness in response to this drawing will be heard by God, He will empower them to turn and they will be saved.

    • Wow, Julie! That is a long reply! And a very good one, too!

      Unfortunately, there’s no way I can respond to everything you said. But I have written a few things that lays out my position on these tensions in the OT (esp. Jer, Deut, and Ezek). If you’re interested, I could send them to you. (But no worries if you not interested:)

      Just a couple thoughts:

      In your first few paragraphs, you acknowledge my point about Ezekiel, but then use a bunch of other OT passages (which Ezekiel certainly endorsed, as you said) to show that human initiative is still a precondition for God’s restoration of Israel (if I’ve understood you correctly). I would only encourage you to let Ezekiel be Ezekiel; and let Jeremiah be Jeremiah; etc. In other words, there is a beautiful diversity (not contradiction, but diversity) in the OT, and we should acknowledge the emphasis inherent in each book. And there’s also a development in thought throughout the OT (some call it progressive revelation) where early on your see a stronger call to obey and repent, while latter one you see more of an emphasis on God’s unilateral intervention to restore the covenant. (I’m not pulling this out of my nose; it’s well known in OT scholarship, and again, I can send you something that spells this out more thoroughly.)

      You said: “I do believe that Scripture teaches that all men are sinners and are unable to do a thing about it. They cannot change themselves through human effort.” This is really exact point. That God must take the first step toward us, before we come to him. And that God does communicate to the spiritual dead and awaken them, etc. That’s the whole point of Ezek 37, that the bones are “very dry”–they are, to use my analogy again, dead as a doornail. And the only reason they “live” is because God breathes life into them. They didn’t take the first step toward God, but vice versa. They didn’t (explicitly in the text) choose God until God’s prior action in enabling them (36:26).

      I’m wondering if we are actually disagreeing all that much.

  • Andrew

    Preston, reading through these comments made me want to recycle a question I asked in a previous blog post that went un-discussed since it was more of an aside at the time…It pertains to Romans 3. A messianic Jewish friend of mine posed this question to me and I wanted to get your thoughts on his perspective:

    “Just out of curiosity, how do you handle the fact that the scriptures Paul pulls from in Romans 3 to “prove” that all are ungodly when in Romans 3 his point is more to prove that *Jews* are included in the notion “under sin?” The texts Paul pulls from come from texts that explicitly *do not* teach the universality of sin and actually teach a categorical separation from those under sin (i.e. Gentiles(all Gentiles?), the “fool,” “foe,” “violent men,” “wicked,” as opposed to the Psalmist or the people of Israel that are righteous (albeit not in a absolute sense). It seems Paul is midrashing to make a predetermined point rather than exegeting the OT to reestablish an already existing point especially because all the Scriptures he appeals to (except for maybe Isa 59 which would refer to the exilic generation) teach that if any are ungodly it’s the enemies of the Israel not every single individual who has ever lived.”

    Thanks!

    • Andrew

      Oh ya…can you also sum up for me/us Ben Sira and the Essenes views? I know it can’t be as simple as saying the Essenes were the proto-Calvinists (or hyper-Calvinists as you said above) so helping me figure out their distinctive nuances would be…helpful(sorry for the tautology haha).

      • Ya, Sirach argues pretty adamantly for a “free-will” theology. E.g. Sir 15:

        It was he who created humankind in the beginning,
        and he left them in the power of their own free choice.
        If you choose, you can keep the commandments
        and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.
        …Before each person are life and death,
        and whichever one chooses will be given. (Sir 15:14-15, 17)

        See too Sir 17:11-12 and many others.

        The Essenes, according to Josephus, “leave everything up to fate (read: predestination),” and while this is oversimplified, it captures a main theological strand in the Scrolls (Damascus Document 2:2-13, among others).

    • Ya, very good thoughts, Andrew (and friend of Andrew’s). Basically, Paul and his audience both assume that the Gentile world is horribly wicked and that the Israelites (or the righteous therein) are much better off. This is the view of the Psalms that Paul quotes. But Paul goes on to do what the Prophets of Israel used to do and cite Scripture creatively to turn it against the Jews whom he’s arguing against. In other words, Paul agrees that the Gentiles are horribly wicked (Rom 1:18-32; Eph 4:17-19) but shockingly says that “so are the Jews.” By citing Psalms to prove his point, he’s essentially saying that the Jews are living like the wicked Gentiles that the Psalmists would castigate (see too Ezek 16).

      So at the end of the day, I think a universal reading of Rom 3:10-12 is still sound.

      • Andrew R.

        Makes sense. He’s a fellow student at Talbot although doctrinally he’s far from being lined up with them 🙂 and he’s been introducing me to all sorts of new questions. The quotes were from they way I rephrased it in my previous blog comment btw, that wasn’t a direct quote from him just fyi.

  • Julie

    Thanks, Preston. I’m really enjoying the blogs and have learned much from them.

    You’re correct in your perception—on this topic, I probably have things ironed out in my mind as much as you do in yours. Nevertheless, I wanted additional things to consider from you, so thank you. I’ll be a bit too busy to thoroughly respond to each of your considerations right away, but I wanted quickly respond to your fourth one. I didn’t mean to suggest that you, personally, said that God gets blamed when we don’t repent. As you wrote, Scripture is very clear that those who reject God are to blame. (And by the way, I agree that they believe the gospel only after God has “opened up their heart to believe” the gospel message). What I was trying to say is that if it’s true that God supernaturally intervenes with only some in order to “cause” them to repent, those with whom He doesn’t supernaturally intervene will have an excuse, namely, “I would have liked to repent but God didn’t cause me to repent like He did with others.” Yet Scripture is clear, as you wrote, man will be without excuse (Romans 1).

    What did you think of my understanding of Jeremiah’s comment about a leopard’s spots? Is it at all possible he was suggesting that some had become so hardened, they were beyond repentance? That Jeremiah didn’t necessarily mean that they were born with spots (i.e. born hardened) and so could never repent.

    What did you think of my understanding of Roman 3:10-12? Reasonable interpretation?

    When you don’t walk in His commandments, what do you make of that? Did God fail to “cause” you to obey His commandments in that moment? Maybe I misunderstand what you mean by this phrase.

    And one question that wasn’t part of my original post: what merit is there in recognizing one’s hopeless condition? Does it make one less of a sinner?

    • Julie,

      Excellent questions, and I’m not sure I’m the best one to answer them all, but I’ll try (I really don’t have things that ironed out; I’m still on a journey have a ways to go.)

      Here’s a few thoughts:

      You suggested: “I would have liked to repent but God didn’t cause me to repent like He did with others.” It’s the “I would have liked to” part that I don’t think Scripture teaches. Again, I think that Rom 1:18-23 (and others) says that no one would have liked to turn to God, but if they do, then it’s because God first turned to them.

      Before I go on, let me just acknowledge that these are all classic issues that theologians have been wrestling with for ages: Calvin and Arminius, Augustine and Palagius, Ben Sira and the Essenes (150 BC), so there’s a sense in which we will never have an airtight answer to all the incongruities in each system. Moving on…

      Re: Jeremiah. You bring up a good contextual point. Jeremiah is speaking specifically of Judah (S. kingdom) and not making a claim of all humanity. But here’s two points to consider, which I think still support my use of this passage. First, the spots of a leopard and the skin of an Ethiopian (or more accurately, Cushite) is innate to their condition. The leopard didn’t get spots from rolling around in the mud, and the Cushite didn’t get tan from being in the sun. They were born with it. (The same point seems to be made throughout Jeremiah, see e.g. 17:1, 9.) Their rejection of God is the ultimate manifestation of a sinful condition. Second, and this is way to tough to prove in a blog reply, but it seems that Israel is singled out in the OT as one who is giving every means to serve God (temple, law, prophets, etc.), and yet they–even THEY–didn’t (or can’t) do it. The point is that if Israel was so bad, then humanity outside Israel can only be worse (or just as bad). I think that Paul assumes this in Rom 1-3; Eph 2, 4, and other passages, when he says that the Jew is just as bad as the Gentile.

      In short, I think the words about Israel’s depravity have a universal truth to them, so that they can be applied to all humanity.

      Good point about Rom 3:10-12. Paul’s rhetorical motivation is ultimately, as I just said, to level the playing field and show that the Jew is just as bad off as the Gentile. But this doesn’t change the meaning of the words Paul quotes from the Psalms. When the Psalms say that “there is none righteous, not even one…all have turned aside…there is none who seek after God” I really think that he agreed with the universal claims therein, which fits in with his overarching argument in 1:18-3:20. The shocker would have been “even the Jew??!!” (as you said) but this doesn’t erase the universal claim Paul makes–which he will make again in Rom 5:12-21; Gal 3:22; Eph 2:1-3; and elsewhere.

      Did God fail when I don’t obey? No. I did. I know it seems like a contradiction, but I don’t think we should view divine/human relation in terms of a zero-sum game (either God or me). If you’re more theologically oriented, you may want to look into the works of Kathryn Tanner, or if you’re more of a biblicist, then read John Barclay’s “introduction” to DIVINE AND HUMAN AGENCY IN PAUL AND HIS CULTURAL ENVIRONMENT (ed. Barclay and Gathercole, 2006). I’m sure many others discuss this issue, but these are two that I’m familiar with.

      I went ahead and snagged a portion from Barclay’s introduction, which I think is spot on (a bit heady, but I think it’ll spur your thinking). I copied it from a PDF, so it looks weird:

      The third model presents divine agency in terms of non-contrastive tran-
      scendence. Here divine agency is certainly not in principle exclusive of human
      agency: transcendence is not viewed in contrastive terms. God’s sovereignty does
      not limit or reduce human freedom, but is precisely what grounds and enables it.
      The two agencies thus stand in direct, and not inverse proportion: the more the
      human agent is operative, the more (not the less) may be attributed to God. As
      K. Tanner insists, ‘a non-contrastive transcendence of God suggests an extreme
      of divine involvement with the world – a divine involvement in the form of a
      productive agency extending to everything that is in an equally direct manner’.14
      But divine transcendence also here implies agencies that are non-identical: God
      is radically distinct from human agency and not an agent within the same order
      of being or in the same causal nexus. Thus human agency is neither an empty
      shell for divine power, nor a threat to divine agency (as in model 1) – nor ulti-
      mately identical to divine agency (model 2). Rather, created human agencies are
      founded in, and constituted by, the divine creative agency, while remaining dis-
      tinct from God. God’s unconditional sovereignty is here operative with regard to
      creatures who have their own will and their own freedom. But that created (or,
      newly created) freedom,15 which may be ‘horizontally’ independent of other cre-
      ated agencies, stands in a ‘vertical’ relationship of absolute dependence on divine
      agency. Other agents may affect human agency, but it is God who effects it, who
      constitutes its effectiveness as an agent. Hence, if God is everything, humanity is
      nothing without God – but may be both powerful and effective as a created agent
      in dependence on God.

  • Julie

    You wrote that people have hard hearts and simply can’t return to God under their own power. That people simply can’t repent and turn to God. Jeremiah’s point about the spots was not a claim that absolutely no one can repent, but that some have become so hardened they are beyond repentance. But they initiated the hardening themselves with pride, arrogance and rebellion against God’s commands.

    By the way, if God only started giving the Spirit of Life AFTER the cross (at Pentecost), how was it that OT people repented and turned to God? We know they were commanded to repent and turn to God all the time and we also know that some of them did. How did they do that without the Spirit of Life which allegedly “causes” one to repent?

    In Romans 3:10-12, I don’t see that Paul is attempting to make a case that no one can repent and turn to God. These verses are simply part of the evidence Paul pulls from the Psalms to make his case that “both Jews and Greeks are all under sin” (vs. 9) and “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (vs. 23). The evidence is sandwiched between the points Paul is trying to make, namely, Jews are in no better situation than Greeks; we’re all in heap of trouble.

    When you say, “we’re all dead as a doornail,” what do you mean by that exactly? Dead in our sins or something else? What reference are you thinking of (what Scripture do you think supports that comment in the context you mean it)? Before you answer, consider Cornelius and Lydia who were both worshippers of God before they were given the indwelling Spirit of Life (i.e. saved) by way of the gospel.

    Ezekiel promised that God will “put His Spirit within you and cause you to walk in His commandments”; he doesn’t promise that God will cause you to repent. Repentance comes first and THEN God will breathe life into you and “cause” you to walk in His commandments.

    And even then, do you think you’re being “caused” to walk in His commandments? And when you fail to do so, God failed to “cause” you to walk in His commandments at that moment? Just curious about this one.

    No doubt of the priority of the divine agency in salvation. Jesus promised he would draw ALL men to himself (John 12:32); not just some. Jesus enlightens EVERY man (John 1:9); not just some. Some do not resist the Holy Spirit and some do—“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51). No sense in blaming them for their resistance if it’s really God’s fault they can’t repent (i.e. God didn’t “cause” them to repent so they can’t). Yet, they will, indeed, be held accountable for their rejection of the Spirit’s conviction. And they will not have an excuse (i.e. “but God didn’t ‘cause’ me…”) for all are without excuse (Romans 1). God’s people are told to circumcise their hearts (Jer. 4:4); not wait around for God to do it. Repentance is on them; not God. However, their repentance doesn’t save them; their repentance is a confession of the hopeless condition of their hearts (i.e. the recognition of their incurable disease). When someone finally accepts the doctor’s declaration of incurable cancer, the acceptance of this hopeless condition doesn’t save them. And similarly, one’s recognition of one’s hopeless condition doesn’t have any salvific merit either. The gospel is like a rope dangling next to each man hanging off his own cliff. God gives sight to see the rope for what it is to men who have recognized their dire situation. Men full of pride and arrogance swat at the rope rather than grab onto it for dear life. Neither man, with sight or without, can save himself. The rope does all the work for the man given sight to see the rope for what it is.

    • Julie,

      Thanks for dropping in and for offering some very good comments. I appreciate you reading the blogs and thinking through the stuff we write.

      Sometimes it’s hard to read someone’s tone on a blog, but it sounds like you have things pretty ironed out in your mind and that there’s not much I could do to adjust that. Forgive me if this isn’t an accurate assessment.

      In any case, here’s just a couple things to consider.

      First, regarding Ezekiel 36, you said: “Repentance comes first and THEN God will breathe life into you and “cause” you to walk in His commandments.” This is simply inaccurate. Nowhere in Ezekiel’s salvation oracles (chs. 34-48) is it foreseen that Israel will repent first and that God will respond to their repentance. It just ain’t there. Now, while it’s true that there are calls for repentance (e.g. chs. 18, 33). But while there may be many CALLS for Israel to return to her God, the relationship is never restored through a human act of repentance.

      And, second, the same is true of Jeremiah. Yes, there is a call to circumcise their hearts, but as the book unfolds, it’s clear that can’t, which is why the salvation oracle of Jer 31-32 (emphasized divine agency as the formal cause of repentance).

      Third, the idea of “dead as a doornail” is drawn from Ezek 36:26-27; 37:1-14; Eph 2:1-3 (“BY NATURE children of wrath”).

      Fourth, I never said that God gets blamed when we don’t repent. The Scriptures are clear that when people reject God, they are to blame (Rom 1:18-23). But when they turn to God, it’s because God has “opened up their heart to believe” (cf. Lydia, Acts 16).

      Fifth, I’d suggest looking at the variegated way in which biblical writers use the word “all” (e.g. your reference to John 1 and 12). “All” doesn’t usually mean “every single person of humanity,” otherwise, Paul would have put on one killer revival service when he “preached to all people everywhere (Acts 21:28). See too Mark 1:5 and many, many other passages.

      Thanks again for dropping in, Julie. I appreciate your very well-thoughtout comments and your vast knowledge of the biblical text! Please drop in again.

      Preston

  • David S.

    Great stuff Preston!

    I love the numerous new shades and completely new colors you’ve just added to my understanding of Paul, the Essenes and new life.

    Right now, there’s a tension in my brain where the New Testament REQUIRES us to first be brought to the Covenant by the spirit and not through our own human agency (is this even true?). But at the same time, there’s thousands of years where God’s way of bringing people into the Covenant did not involve sending the spirit into their heart; it involved an action outside of their hearts (i.e. the Exodus, which was designed to motivated them into obedience).

    Is it no longer possible to be an obedient follower of God through an outside (your heart) act of God which lets you see His loving-kindness?

    Can we only enter into the Kingdom through the Spirit? Because if this is true, what are we to make of all the Old Testament Saints?

    • David,

      You are way ahead in your thinking. Seriously, bro, you really have a good handle on the issues, shown by the questions you are asking. And the question you ask at the end is a great one, which I don’t think there’s an easy answer to. I think, though, that you are correct to say that God used other means to being people in the covenant, and yet it was still God doing it. And in the new covenant, it is the Spirit who enables us to enter the covenant. The one thing we do see, though, is that without the Spirit, the old covenant was a failure, which is Paul’s exact point in 2 Cor 3:1-7 and Gal 3:1-29. So there is something new, something better about the way God acts through the Spirit in the New Covenant.