We Have a Reception Problem
The greatest gifts, and the deepest truths of God are given and revealed only to those who trust in Him. Seems obvious on the surface, but wait until you receive one! Only then will you understand the greatness of the blessing, or the deepness of the truth. My experience has been that it's one thing to seek the blessing, and there is an element of nobility in the seeking. But then, when you receive it, you realize how you have short-changed yourself, and how meager has been your desire, and how lame your hope, and how immeasurably great are the things that God has in store for us!
I don't even know how to pray anymore, I am so repulsed by the ineptitude of my own supplications. Thank God that His Spirit prays on my behalf. Christ is my advocate in ways I have only now begun to appreciate. I am only now, after walking with Him for over thirty years, beginning to understand that He just gives and gives, and the only thing standing in His way is my own will.
But of course, when the blessing comes, if we fail to see its magnitude or value, we will not respond appropriately, will we? Sadly, we are likely to just keep on complaining…
What is so amazing to me is that God knows how we will respond upon hearing His word. He knows that we will certainly misinterpret various pieces of scripture. None of this catches Him by surprise. Not only that, but God knows that certain things He has said, almost everybody will misinterpret. Jesus surely knew, for instance, that many people would label him as divisive and violent when He said,
"Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household." (Matthew 10)
Jesus knew how harsh His words were. But these words of His comprised the truth, and at the time He spoke them, it was the right time, as known and determined by the wisdom and full counsel of God. At other given times, God has said other things, seemingly contradictory to this bold statement of Jesus. For instance:
The one who lives with integrity is righteous; his children who come after him will be happy.
I will make your fortifications out of rubies, your gates out of sparkling stones, and all your walls out of precious stones.Then all your children will be taught by the Lord , their prosperity will be great, and you will be established on a foundation of righteousness.You will be far from oppression, you will certainly not be afraid; you will be far from terror, it will certainly not come near you.
Grandchildren are the crown of the elderly, and the pride of sons is their fathers.
Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord , children, a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons born in one’s youth. Happy is the man who has filled his quiver with them. Such men will never be put to shame when they speak with their enemies at the city gate.
So God speaks truth into our lives, and sometimes that truth is hard to swallow. Many writers have concluded that God is evil, or selfish, or impetuous, or ill-tempered, or vindictive, or etc… because they just don't like what He has said. Other writers have undertaken to correct Jesus' attitude, as though he was basically a good guy, but just needed to be tempered, or restrained in His zeal, at times. And every one of us can somewhat understand these writers' viewpoints.
But to those who humble themselves before the Lord, He grants understanding of His truths. But the arrogant, and the proud, He ignores (Proverbs 15:29).
It's not difficult to be ignored by God: just call Him a bad name. In fact, you are lucky if He ignores you instead of simply destroying you, and if this is the case for you, then you are a recipient of God's grace. This is proof of the fact that these people who levy indictments against God's character are wrong: the fact that they still live and breathe.
Clearly, we have a Reception Problem.
The problem is not that God has failed to communicate His truth to us, or that His communication style is lacking or inappropriate. The problem is that we are unable to receive the truth. Our problem is simply that God has told us the truth, but we can't handle the truth.
And yet!— We can.
We can handle the truth, but God has left it up to ourselves, whether we will choose to do so. Yet the following scripture seems to refute this assertion…
Therefore, when many of His disciples heard this, they said, “This teaching is hard! Who can accept it?” Jesus, knowing in Himself that His disciples were complaining about this, asked them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you were to observe the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? The Spirit is the One who gives life. The flesh doesn’t help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some among you who don’t believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning those who would not believe and the one who would betray Him.) He said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted to him by the Father.”
—John 6:60-65 HCSB
So has God really left it up to ourselves whether we will decide to embrace His truth? Perhaps not, since Jesus very clearly states, "…no one can come to Me unless it is granted to him by the Father." Nonetheless, we cannot escape the logical truth that we each make our own choices, hence, upon hearing the truth, we choose what we are going to do with it.
This is where some pseudo-intellectuals unwittingly demonstrate their own intellectual dishonesty:— when they blame their own unbelief on God. The irony here is palpable, as the person who is naturally subject to Truth in every aspect turns about, defiantly claiming mastery over the very Truth that created him, lamely attempting to blame his own disbelief in God on God, the One whose authority he doubts. The unbeliever only digs his own grave deeper when, upon hearing that only those who are called by God are saved, disclaims his own accountability by asserting that God has not called him. This is surely the most primal example of blame-shifting!
Is it any wonder, then, that God says men are without excuse? (Romans 1:20) The fact is, if God did not exist, then atheists would not possess the power to disbelieve His existence. (Which of the animals has ever proclaimed his disbelief in God? —none.) I personally believe that what happens when an atheist is converted is that the atheist comes to the realization that he has resisted God by the power that was given to him by God Himself.
And of course, there is plenty of error on both sides of the fence. The atheist will continue to make up excuses for his disbelief, whereas the believer may pride himself in his own ability to discern truth and to come to a right conclusion. But is this what the believer has actually done? Is his own salvation a derivative result of his superior (to the atheist's) ability to recognize God's truth for what it is?
I dare say, "No. Not even close." For the believer's ability to recognize Truth is not something he came up with himself. It is a gift from God.
“This is why I told you that no one can come to Me unless it is granted to him by the Father.” (John 6)
On this point, I agree with the Calvinists, that perhaps ultimately God decides who will be saved, and who won't. But some misguided "Calvinists" take this logic too far when they answer one's question, "What must I do to be saved?" with the answer: "There's nothing you can do, for it is God who saves, not man." This is a seriously misguided, if not heretical, answer to an honest question, for scripture itself contains the right answer:
Then he escorted them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved? ” So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved — you and your household.”
—Acts 16:30-31 HCSB
Regeneration: Monergistic, or Synergistic?
There is a continual debate over whether regeneration precedes salvation, or whether spiritual regeneration proceeds only after salvation has occurred. There is also debate over whether the process of salvation is synergistic or monergistic—whether the soul of man plays an active part, or is it God alone who acts in the salvation of an individual.
The monergists are bent on seeing that man receives no credit for salvation, whereas the synergists cannot escape the fact that their own decisions and choices have surely played a part in it.
The difficult part about this is that I agree with both positions—at least in part.
I think that the problem of the monergists can be solved if they can bring themselves to acknowledge that, at the point where an unregenerate sinner asks, "What must I do to be saved?" regeneration (hence, the process of salvation) has already begun. For who inquires earnestly about the things of God in the flesh? Certainly not the unregenerate sinner, who is, by virtue of his fallen fleshly state, focused exclusively on fleshly solutions to his problems. A million self-help titles in the bookstore lend preponderant evidence of this.
Martin Luther said,
"…To put it simply, synergism is the belief that faith is produced by our unregenerated human nature."
Now, if this is the case—if this is what is meant by "synergism"—, then I agree with him that synergism is error.
But Luther also says,
"I say that man, before he is renewed into the new creation of the Spirit's kingdom, does and endeavours nothing to prepare himself for that new creation and kingdom, and when he is re-created has[,] does and endeavors nothing towards his perseverance in that kingdom; but the Spirit alone works both blessings in us, regenerating us, and preserving us when regenerate, without ourselves..."
And at this point I find I must disagree with him(!). How can this concept possibly be reconciled with our imperative to
"…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."
How is it that "working out our own salvation" has nothing to do with our own will?!? Paul and Timothy are speaking to real people here, imploring them to keep the faith, and to consciously make choices and decisions fitting for those living under the saving grace of God.
It appears to me that, in refuting the tenets of synergism, Luther has "thrown the baby out with the bath water." For I cannot escape the fact that the process of my own spiritual regeneration is indeed highly synergistic! God lays before me choices to make every day, and at every point I can either submit to His will and His wisdom (only by His grace) or go my own way in accordance to the flesh:—the unscriptural advice of the self-help pundits, the tenets of modern psychology, my own empirical determination, etc., etc.
I also cannot escape the clear and simple fact that "Abram believed the Lord, and He credited it to him as righteousness." (Genesis 15:6; cited in Romans 4, Galations 3). So if man, "when he is re-created has[,] does and endeavors nothing towards his perseverance in that kingdom;" as Luther has said, how is it that Abraham's belief of God was credited to him as righteousness? This makes no sense.
Why would God give Credit where none is Due?
Staunch monergists (such as many Calvinists I have encountered) must answer this question.
The Artificial Choice
A problem I perceive is the artificial construct in which we each, as individuals, must choose a particular theology to which we shall subscribe. "Reformed" Christians will say you must eschew Arminianism. Modern evangelicals often find Calvinism repugnant. There is a strong element claiming that one's own personal interpretation of the scriptures cannot be trusted, thus you must seek the guidance of the historical church fathers. Everyone seems to be saying, "Sola Scriptura! —except, let us tell you what it really means." Even the miracle- and sign-seeking Pentecostals and healers will say, "We believe the Bible," though they really have no theology—at least nothing of any historical permanence.
But for me, it all simply boils down to a very simple picture: there is an individual (yourself, perhaps) who has determined that a relationship with Christ is of imminent value. Now, I think that no matter from what theological background you come, we can all agree that this conviction comes only by God's grace, through His Holy Spirit.
Now the theologians must answer this: Does this passage of scripture apply to this individual?
When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth. For He will not speak on His own, but He will speak whatever He hears. He will also declare to you what is to come. He will glorify Me, because He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you. Everything the Father has is Mine. This is why I told you that He takes from what is Mine and will declare it to you.
—John 16:13-15 HCSB
Theology: a Human Invention
At the end of the day, theologians (of which I consider myself one) must admit that theology is a human invention. God's theology is entirely encompassed in His Word. Man's theology is but an extrapolation thereof, in order to compress the mind of God down into something comprehensible to the mind of man—and theologians would do well to remember this fact. Man's theology therefore cannot ever be considered comparable to God's. It might well help in our understanding of fundamental principles, but it will never begin to approach a full disclosure of the mind of God, for
Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or who gave Him His counsel? Who did He consult with? Who gave Him understanding and taught Him the paths of justice? Who taught Him knowledge and showed Him the way of understanding?
—Isaiah 40:13-14 HCSB
Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.
—Romans 11:33-36 HCSB
Theology vs. Doctrine
the science of God or of religion; the science which treats of the existence, character, and attributes of God, his laws and government.
a particular principle, position, or policy taught or advocated, as of a religion or government.
(Note that the word government in the former definition speaks of God's government, whereas the same word in the latter refers to earthly governments).
Now, much doctrine that we hear comes pretty much directly from God's Word; from the Bible. But a fair bit of doctrine going around derives more from a particular theological background, as is demonstrated by the arguments of its adherents. It is all too common, when a given point of doctrine is questioned, that the answer comes in the form of, for instance, a quotation of a confession of faith, or a creed. This is unfortunate, for it indicates a degree of separation between the one holding the conviction and the One who should be convicting believers:—the Holy Spirit Himself.
So here's the kicker: I said above that man's theology is an extrapolation of God's theology… but is it? Or is it rather an interpolation? Extrapolation implies that something—some information—is added, either explicitly or implied—to its essential basis. But can man's reasoning really add anything to the wisdom which is encompassed by the Word of God? I think not! Therefore, I would assert that theology—any and every given theology on earth—is an interpolation. It is essentially less than the full wisdom of God. It is a subset. It is not a better explanation of biblical principles than is God's Word. It is inferior. Hence, it is lacking.
Nothing can replace your relationship with Christ! Nothing can replace the unction of the Holy Spirit in your life.
We all have a reception problem, because we all still live in these vessels of flesh, which war against the Spirit. But thank God that somehow, some way (which remains a mystery to us), the Spirit of God is able to enable us—ourselves, indeed—to handle the Truth when we hear it. And our belief therein is credited to US as righteousness! Can you believe it?
So wherein lies the foundation of your salvation? Wherein lies the key to your spiritual regeneration? Is it that you have subscribed to the correct theology? I would implore you, dear reader, to pause—to stop—just stop. And consider... Has your theology become your idol?
At this point, I should summarize my thoughts in a beautifully conceived syllogism which boils my points down into something easily digested and referred back to. But I shall not, for I feel that would be too overtly systematic. Plus, the Bible doesn't do that, so neither will I. Call me arrogant if you will, but if you want to hear what I've said, you'll have to read it again.