Limited Choice

Q – You say that God guides the steps of man, or some wording similar to that. We do still have limited choice, right? God ‘hedges us in’ but we still get to choose to some small degree, correct?

Jim – You have choice between limited options. For instance, you can choose which route to drive to work. But ultimately you are choosing between options that lead to the same destination. So, your choices are limited to those options which actually lead to the front door of your office. As long as your destination remains consistent, your choices are limited to those that lead in that direction.

Likewise, you are only able to choose among those spiritual options which God has ordained for your life. Inasmuch as your natural state is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), you were incapable of choosing anything that was good, righteous, holy or Godly. God had to revive you spiritually in order to begin the process of drawing you to Himself.

As you proceed on this journey of faith you will have what I call “the illusion of choice.” But ultimately you will only choose those things which God ordained for you. If you have the power to choose independently of the will of God, then He is not in fact sovereign or all-powerful. If it is true that “the lot is cast into the lap and the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord” (Prov. 16:33), then even the most minute moments of your life are predetermined. We cannot see that clearly. We are clouded by our mortality and sin. But, the Bible declares that God is in absolute control. There is no such thing as “partial sovereignty” or “limited sovereignty.” He is either truly “all and in all,” or He is a passive observer.

Jesus argued that no one can exercise his own will sufficiently to make himself one cubit taller. Your will and your ability to choose are very limited. I cannot even grow hair! And if we cannot control such basic earthly attributes of ourselves, how can we be so presumptuous as to think that we can control our eternal estate?

“And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit? If ye then be not able to do that thing which is least, why take ye thought for the rest?” (Luke 12:25-26)

By the way, it is a great comfort to me to know that God guides my steps, even if I am not aware of His power at work. I have a definite compunction for straying off the path. If He did not guide my steps I’d walk happily into destruction. His sovereignty is a great comfort and relief.

Q – I accept that God is sovereign but I want to know more about choice. In other words, if this guy I’m witnessing to says, “Did God cause 9/11?” Am I to say, “He didn’t cause it because God is incapable of evil, but God did allow it.”?

Jim – God says this about Himself –

“I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God. I will gird you, though you have not known Me; that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me. I am the LORD, and there is no other, the One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating calamity; I am the LORD who does all these.” (Isa. 45:5-7)

That’s the NAS version of that passage. The KJV renders it,

“I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.” (Isa. 45:7)

The religious mind of humans wants to avoid this sort of thinking. We like our God to be all-good all-the-time and then we define what “goodness” is. We think of goodness as only be kindness and benevolence. But, everything God does is good by virtue of the fact that everything God does brings Himself glory. And sometimes His glory, holiness and righteousness are best served by His judgment.

God does use “means” to accomplish His ends, like allowing Satan into the garden, allowing Satan to bring Job all sorts of misery, or allowing terrorists onto airplanes. But, even the wickedness of men serves God’s ultimate purpose. He allows – and indeed decrees – just enough calamity and trouble to accomplish His will.

“Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain.” (Psalm 76:10)

“For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, for to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.” (Acts 4:27-28)

That passage from Acts says that evil men did exactly what their evil hearts and wicked desires determined to do. Yet, they ended up doing exactly what God foreordained to be done. And it’s impossible, in my mind, to ignore the parallel to 9-11. Wicked men did evil things. But, were they outside of the reach of God’s mighty arm? Was He incapable of stopping them or preventing their plan? No. They did exactly what God ordained to be done. And we will only understand how these events played into God’s plan when we are able to view all of history in retrospect. Just as the apostles could not understand how someone as powerful as Jesus could be killed by evil men until they saw the power of the resurrection, we cannot always understand the mind and counsel of God in the things that He allows and ordains. But, we will when we are resurrected to glory and see Him face-to-face.

Q – As I ‘pitch’ some of these 5 points at someone raised in the Church of Christ this weekend, I’ve started to try and come up with objections so that I can address them quickly and effectively with the Word. If I receive an objection about a Christian’s response to sin like the following, what should I say?

“As I was raised in the Church of Christ I was taught that we had to ask for forgiveness for our sins. What do I do now? Do I not even have to apologize to God?”

I feel that I could answer this, but I also think that you’ve encountered this and have a more succinct answer.

Jim – I would respond, “Yes, all sin is a sin against God. Our sin is still an affront to His holiness and an offense against His word. Apologies are quite appropriate.”

Remember that Paul wrote more about God’s sovereign election than any other NT writer (given that he wrote 2/3 of the NT), but he also taught repentance, dying to sin and living righteously. Even Jesus taught that we are to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

God’s sovereignty in electing a people for Himself does not excuse the elect saints from their responsibility to live uprightly before Him. That’s the whole point! After the flesh, we were utterly incapable of pleasing God or living righteously before Him. But, in the process of saving, justifying and glorifying us, He has also put His Spirit in us to give us the conscience of sin and the urge to draw near to our Father in righteousness.

Let me put it this way – sinful men do not know how truly sinful they are. It takes the definite power and working of the Holy Spirit to convince us of our sinfulness and compel us to turn from it. Without God’s intervention we would have no idea that we were in deep trouble eternally. It is His gracious act of revealing Himself to us that leads us to repentance. We react in love, respect and reverence by admitting to the God of the universe that He is truly holy and we are truly depraved. Our best works are filthy rags. And only by His grace and kindness do we have any hope of enjoying an eternal relationship with Him. So, admitting our sin is part of the deal.

My kids will always be my kids. That will never change. And they know I will always love them, no matter what. But, when they offend me, it’s appropriate for them to apologize. They are not apologizing because they are afraid I will cast them off and make them live in the gutter. They apologize because they also love me and are truly sorry for causing me hurt. Likewise, we do not admit our sin and ask for our Father’s forgiveness in order to “stay saved.” We admit our offense before Him precisely because we ARE saved. And the Spirit that dwells within us is grieved when we sin against the Father. So, that selfsame Spirit will urge us and beat us down until we return to the Father in contrition and with a broken heart, admitting our failure and love for Him.

But even that is all His work, in us and through us. Our flesh would simply never act that way were it not for His divine intervention and grace.

Q – In one of the sermons I was listening to, I believe it was “Whose Faith Moves Mountains? Part 2,” you say as long as someone is resting completely in Christ for their redemption they are saved. Forgive me if my focus is off here but I am still adjusting to this new paradigm. Does this mean that if my wife does not yet grasp the 5 points but has been baptized into Christ, received the Holy Spirit, and professed her belief that Jesus is the son of God and I have witnessed her perseverance that she is not saved?

Jim – No, that’s not at all what I meant. It is not up to me to determine anyone’s salvation. That is God’s work. I can celebrate when someone grasps His word and shows every evidence of genuine conversion. But, I cannot say that anyone is lost. That’s simply not my place.

Your wife would show no interest at all in the things of God if He had left her to herself. Good doctrine produces unity of the faith within a Christian body of believers, but failure to grasp every nuance of Pauline doctrine does not necessarily result in damnation. None of us understands the things of God completely. So, if we are going to say that salvation is dependent on some level of understanding, where do we draw the line? How much knowledge is sufficient?

No, salvation is wrapped up in the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work – nothing else. My whole point in that sermon was to say that people can rest entirely in Christ’s work while not engaging in the depths of doctrine and they will indeed be saved. But, as often as not, people do not rest in Christ’s finished redemption; they rest in their traditions, their works or their attempts to redefine the genuine Christian faith. That’s what I’m up-in-arms about.

I do not doubt the sincerity of your wife’s faith. The things you point to – her baptism, the Holy Spirit, her profession – all speak to the genuineness of her faith. And we all have our spiritual baggage; traditions and beliefs we have been fed by our religion. My goal is to free people from that baggage by engaging them with God’s unfiltered Word. The genuine doctrine of the sufficiency of Christ in salvation is the central message of the entire Bible. And I don’t water it down.

But, it’s not my place to judge.

Q – Does this mean that baptism, in this paradigm, is not a necessary step in salvation?

Jim – It is necessary as an act of obedience in identifying ourselves with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection.

“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.” (Rom 6:3-4)

However, baptism is not a prerequisite for salvation. In order for something to be a rule, we must not be able to find exceptions. If we can find even one exception, it is not a rule. Fair enough? The thief on the cross next to Jesus was converted at the point of death. He asked Jesus to remember him and was assured that He would join Jesus in paradise. Yet, he could not DO anything. He was not baptized. Yet, Jesus had no trouble promising him eternal life. So, we cannot conclude that salvation is impossible without baptism.

Q – It is my understanding that we receive the Holy Spirit upon Baptism, but I would have no reason to be baptized if faith had not been given to me.

Jim – Right. Baptism does not introduce the Holy Spirit into a person. It takes the Spirit of God within a person to convince them of Christ and bring them to faith. Baptism is an outward emblem of that internal faith. It is a public declaration of someone’s identification with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection.

If baptism did indeed cause someone to receive the Holy Spirit, then the power to grant the Spirit would be with men. Whoever we baptize would be saved. But, Jesus said this regarding the Spirit –

“The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Just as God directs the wind and no man can control it, “so is everyone that is born of the Spirit.” We may see the outward evidence of it, but we cannot control it. It is a gift of God; given to those individuals He has determined to save.

“And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.” (John 14:16-17)

By the way, that Spirit fell at Pentecost while the apostles were in the upper room praying. That same Spirit converted three thousand souls that day. No one was baptized prior to the Holy Spirit’s arrival. That ought to tell us what we need to know.

Q – Does this mean that faith is the only step, or most important step?

Jim – Nope. You’re still thinking in terms of what we have to do. But, there’s nothing for us to do. “It is finished.” The Law of Moses said, “Do this and live.” The gospel of Christ says, “Live, it is done!”

Everything – and I mean absolutely everything – that God requires for the salvation of His people was accomplished in Christ. Faith is a gift from God, not a requirement we have to dredge up.

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that [that faith is] not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)

“Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2)

Whatever God requires – repentance, faith, good works – He supplies them. It all redounds to His glory.

Now let me be clear – just because I said that there is nothing that we have to do, that does not mean that we will do nothing. We will indeed produce good fruit, live righteously, exercise faith and act in obedience to His word. But, He is the cause of that activity. He ordains and empowers that activity. We are the recipients of His amazing grace. We get no credit. Christ gets the preeminence in all things.

“For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.” (Col 1:16-18)

Now, if He indeed has preeminence over the Church, how can we argue anything except that He is responsible for every facet of our salvation and eternal security? If we must perform some function in order to complete the work that He began, then He is not truly preeminent. He is cooperative. You cannot name any aspect of salvation that does not find its root and sustenance in the work and person of Jesus Christ.

Q – Please help me to re-align my thinking as the steps to salvation that I have learned seem somewhat works-oriented or meritorious to me now.

Jim – Exactly. Isn’t it amazing how much light a bit of Scripture can throw on our traditions?

Keep working at these things. You’re doing well. Keep re-aligning your thinking. Each step will lead to freedom and security. It’s a very cool thing.

Yours by His matchless grace,

Jim Mc.