Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: assurance

Free will

We must believe in free will — we have no choice. Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Hmm. I wonder what he was getting at? Having nothing more to go on to discern a more complex meaning in Mr. Singer’s thought than this fragment, I will say that I agree.

When Moses told the people “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life;” and Joshua later said to the same people “ Choose you this day whom ye will serve,” we must assume that the people really were free to make the choices offered to them.

Yet many Christian denominations, probably most, teach that we do not have free will to choose our own destiny. They magnify the sovereignty of God to the point of saying that if humans can choose whether or not to answer God’s call then we are saying that God is less than almighty.

But if words mean anything, the Bible is offering us just such a choice, from Genesis to Revelation. Where then do people get the idea that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says?

Determinism, the belief that the gods, karma, fate, or whatever you want to call the ultimate power in the universe, have pre-determined every detail of one’s life, has always been part of Eastern religions. It entered Western thought through Zeno, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy.

It entered pseudo-Christian thought through Augustine, who laid the intellectual foundation for Roman Catholic policy. Augustine adapted Zeno’s thought, saying that God has predestined some people to be saved, and some to be damned. Since it is not given to mankind to know into which category they fall, the church has the right to compel all people within its territory to be members of the church and to turn the non-compliant over to the civil authorities. And since the church and the civil power were in complete unity, disobedience to the church was treason to the state and must be punished by death.

Since it could not be known who was predestined to salvation or damnation, then one could not discern that by the moral conduct of the person. In fact, those who led a pure and holy life were deemed to be deceived and the worst of heretics. This led to such aberrations in the Middle Ages as girls being led to the executioner because they refused the advances of the priests.

During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin refined the doctrine of Augustine; the essence of Calvin’s doctrine is often described by the TULIP formula:
Total depravity – the depravity of mankind prevents them from choosing to answer God’s call.
Unconditional election – The conduct of the elect has no part in determining their salvation.
Limited atonement – Christ only died for the elect, those predestined to be saved.
Irresistible grace – the grace of God is imparted to the elect, who have no power to resist it.
Perseverance of the saints – The elect can never lose their salvation.

This is the explicit doctrine of the Presbyterian, Reformed and most Baptist churches. Other churches believe much of what Calvin taught, but may be a bit nebulous about the origin of their beliefs.

The problem with believing Calvin’s doctrine is that church pews are occupied by people who believe that they have been born again through the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, but show little evidence of leading a Christian life. The old Westminster Confession got around this by saying that a born again person may take many years to develop an assurance of salvation. The modern teaching is that the new birth and conversion are quite different things, the new birth being instantaneous and conversion being a slow, almost imperceptible process.

The Bible makes no such distinction, the words are used interchangeably. There was a transition period for the disciples who walked with Jesus but did not receive the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost. Jesus told Peter “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” It was only a few days later that Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized. After that, the Apostle Paul says “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

Some may be confused by Paul’s thoughts on predestination. Read the passages as a whole. He is saying that God had predestined that there should be no more division between Jews and Gentiles, but that all could be saved in the same way. He is not speaking of individuals being predestined to salvation. At the end of one long passage on predestination, he writes: “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.”

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Living in the presence of the Shepherd

There are well-meaning Christians who put much emphasis abiding by correct doctrine, even adding numerous rules of guidelines as rules of conduct. The intention is to construct a barrier around the people of God so that they would know not to stray far from the truth as given in the Word of God.

But where is the Shepherd in this scene? It often seems that He has been relegated to a supporting role, the barrier that surrounds the flock is considered greater protection than the Shepherd.

Well, fences work well for cattle. When a herd of cattle is turned out into a new pasture, they will follow the fence around until they are sure that there are no weak spots. Then they will settle down and not trouble the fence again. Oh sure, there will often be one fence jumper in a herd, but the rest will contentedly ignore him and feed on the pasture.

Sheep are not like that. If the flock sees that one sheep has found a weak spot in the fence, they will all follow. That is why sheep need a shepherd, and that is why the Bible depicts the people of God as a flock of sheep. If left to ourselves, we are all inclined to follow the wayward sheep.

In the tenth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd. He calls His own sheep by name; they know His voice. They stay close to Him because they know He will lead them to good pasture and water, He will protect them from danger, He will care for the weak and injured.

Why then does the Bible spend so much time teaching doctrine? Why do we need doctrines if we are in the presence of the Shepherd? The doctrines are a big part of what enables us to discern the voice of the Good Shepherd from all the impostors out there. Jesus spoke of thieves, robbers and hirelings. They all call at first with pleasant, enticing voices. Some are trying to steal and destroy the sheep. Some are merely mercenaries who are acting as shepherds for personal benefit and do not care enough for the sheep to put themselves in the way of danger. “The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”

Jesus says He is the door of the sheepfold. The sheepfold was a walled enclosure to protect the sheep at night during the colder months. The shepherd stood at the door to examine his sheep as they came in, to make sure that all his sheep made it safely into the fold and that no others tried to crowd in. Often he would sleep in the doorway at night to make sure no wild animals tried to get it.

The sheep knew and trusted their shepherd. They would not go out to pasture until the shepherd called them by name and went ahead to check for danger and to lead them to the best pasture.

Here is a God given picture of the ideal state of the children of God. To live constantly in the presence of the Good Shepherd is to live in peace and assurance that all is well. I am where the Shepherd wants me to be; I am doing what the Shepherd wants me to do.

By all means, let’s study the Word of God and learn the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. They all point us to the Shepherd and help us to know Him better. But may we never begin to think that our safety is simply in knowing and obeying the doctrines. It is in knowing and obeying the Shepherd who is revealed by the Word and the doctrines.

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