Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: predestination

The Mennonite service ethic

Protestant work ethic is a termed coined by German sociologist Max Weber in 1905 in his book Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism).

The gist of Weber’s thinking is summarized thusly in Wikipedia: “Calvinist theologians taught that only those who were predestined to be saved would be saved. Since it was impossible to know who was predestined, the notion developed that it might be possible to discern that a person was elect (predestined) by observing their way of life. Hard work and frugality were thought to be two important consequences of being one of the elect. Protestants were thus attracted to these qualities and supposed to strive for reaching them.”

Mennonites have never taught a work ethic, or that there is any redemptive value in work for work’s sake. Nor do we find any basis in Holy Scripture for such an idea. We beliee that God grants salvation only by grace, upon repentance from dead works. The evidence of salvation is not in self-serving work, but in love, joy, peace, patience, temperance and the other aspects of the fruit of the Spirit.

What Mennonites do teach, and always have, is a service ethic, based on the golden rule and loving our neighbour as ourselves. Of course this leads to work, but it is work that is done without feeling a need to prove anything. It is not self-centred, but other-oriented.

We are taught that this service ethic should permeate and motivate all of our relationships with others: in the home; the congregation; at work; in business; helping others in time of distress or disaster; in everything we do. We don’t always get it right, sometimes our feelings may prompt us to be impatient and demanding. The Bible teaches that at such times an apology is in order.

Other people also serve, and that is a wonderful thing. The more people who are willing to serve others, the better this world will be. We are not in competition with anyone, we are not looking for publicity or reward. The Mennonite service ethic prompts us to not think only of ourselves, but to be aware of the needs of others and do what is in our power to do to serve and make life a little easier for them.

The dark side of the Protestant work ethic


Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

In 1905 German sociologist published what many called the most important sociological work of the 20th century: Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. The book was later translated into English and published in 1930 as: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

His thesis was that because of the teaching of predestination, that one’s eternal destiny was determined before he was born, Protestants, especially Calvinists, were left with no clue as to their personal salvation. Protestantism also taught the deification of all productive work. Therefore the idea arose that material success, due to diligence on one’s work, was evidence of salvation. And this became the foundation for the rise of capitalism.

This is not the place to discuss whether Weber was right or wrong in his thesis. I mention it only to point out that the concept of a Protestant work ethic is drawn from this book by Weber.

Neither do I want to be understood as denying Christian values of honesty, integrity, responsibility and the value of a job well done. But I believe we can uphold those values without labelling them a “work ethic”.

For there is a dark side to the Protestant work ethic. It is that a human being is valued by his productive capacity, or in other terms, his earning capacity. For money so easily becomes the yardstick by which to measure a person’s work ethic. It is assumed that those who are poor are that way because they lack a work ethic. Work such as Bible study, the reading of good books, writing, etc., should be kept to a bare minimum, as they are a distraction from a person’s true purpose in life.

Where are the older men and the older women that the New Testament tells to instruct the younger ones? Too many of them are still pretending to be young. Why is being young at heart valued more than the wisdom of old age? Isn’t it because people have spent a lifetime striving to live up to the material values that they believed were expected of them and don’t believe they have acquired much spiritual wisdom that the younger generation wants to hear?

I’m not so sure the younger generation is so closed to learning spiritual lessons from their elders. But let them be genuine spiritual lessons, not just “this is the way we used to do things.”

I acknowledge that most Christians who talk of a work ethic don’t think of all the baggage that may be attached to the term in our society. I feel, however, that it does carry too much baggage in the minds of others and we might be better off to lay it aside. Work ethic is not a term found in the Bible and we do have clear instructions in that book about the values relating to work and material things that Christians should uphold.

The voice of God

Early in my Christian life I obtained some literature that gave an intellectually logical explanation of the atonement. The theme was that Jesus had suffered punishment in hell equivalent to the eternal torment of every soul that would ever be saved. Therefore there was no way that a saved soul need ever fear hell, because his penalty had already been fully paid. On the other hand, there was no hope for those for whom Jesus had not borne the eternal punishment.

This is just the briefest of summaries of what I read, the subject was expounded at considerable length with selected Scriptures that seemed to support the view of the writers. I considered this explanation for some time. It was a watertight argument, intellectually precise with no loose ends that I could find. Yet in this mathematical precision I could find no means for a person to know in which camp he was; was he predestined to salvation or to damnation? Was it possible to know?

Finally, in the turmoil of these questions, I knelt to pray, asking God to give me an understanding of how the death of Jesus made it possible for God to forgive the sins of mankind. The response was immediate – it was silent but unmistakably from God: “You don’t need to understand.”

I was disappointed for a moment, then realized that the turmoil was gone – my mind was at rest.  I had been seeking an understanding of the mechanism of the atonement that would be intellectually satisfying and set my mind at rest. I realized now that it is not possible for that kind of understanding to bring rest and peace. Yet it only took five words from the voice of God to do that.

To know that God was aware of my turmoil, that He was waiting for my prayer, that He had answered in a way that addressed my real need, was of more value than any intellectual understanding could ever have been.

Robotic Christians?

Am I nothing more than a robot? Is every detail of my life preplanned and manipulated by an unseen hand, right down to the moment and circumstances of the end of my life?


That made sense to Zeno the Stoic, to Augustine, to Mohammed, to Buddha and to John Calvin. Some people find it comforting to think that God is in control of everything, but is that really so comforting?

Paul writes about predestination in Romans and Ephesians. However, if we read the complete letters, we find that he is not using the word the same way the Stoics used it. He is saying that God had planned, predestined, before the world began, that salvation would be offered to all mankind.

There are those who believe Paul is speaking of individual predestination – that only some are predestined to be saved and others to be lost. What shall we do then with verses such as 1 Timothy 2:3-4: “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.”?

What Paul is saying is that all mankind is predestined to be saved, not only the Hebrews. This was not clearly understood in previous times, but was revealed by the Gospel. Salvation is now offered to all people on th basis of faith.

“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. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; as it is written, behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed” (Romans 9:30-33).

We live in a chaotic world. Forces were unleashed by the disobedience of our first parents in the Garden of Eden that make life unpredictable and dangerous. Those chaotic forces disrupt and distort everything.

God is not in control. He could intervene to control the actions of every person, and every event, in this world. If we choose to believe that He has done that, we make Him responsible for every atrocity, war, genocide and murder that has ever been. Would you trust your life into the hands of a God like that?

There is a god like that. He promises wonderful things if we will trust him and reach for the bait he offers us. That god is a liar. He gives us brief tastes of things that feel good, then torments us. He promises greater pleasures, and the result is greater torment. Finally he tells us that there is no good thing to expect from life. Everything is against us, why not just put an end to it.

We are responsible for allowing this chaos and evil into the world. God allows it to continue to show us the consequences of our disobedience. When we face that reality, then God reveals His grace, the blood of Jesus Christ to cover our guilt and the power of the Holy Spirit to overcome temptation. We can be happy, free and have a pure conscience.

The spirits of evil and chaos are still active around us and we are not immune to their influence on other people and the effects of their influence. People are not our enemies; our enemies are the evil spirits who egg them on into reacting with bitterness, anger and hatred.

The true God, our Creator, can give us inner peace and quietness in the midst of the chaos of this world. One day the chaos in our world will be transferred to a place where there never will be a hint of God’s grace and we who trust in God will live in a world where even the memory of the chaos will be gone.

We are not robots; the choice of our destination will not be made for us by the invisible hand of a God we hardly know. Now, while we have the opportunity, is the time to choose which world will be our final destination.

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.”

Eternal security or insecurity?

Evangelicals of the present day are being taught a doctrine of eternal security, but most are not aware of the dubious foundation and history of this doctrine. Here is how it all began.

In 312 AD Constantine was facing a battle with a rival whose army was twice the size of Constantine’s.  The story goes that the night before the battle Constantine had a dream or a vision of the cross and the words “In this sign conquer.”  The next day he went into battle with the sign of the cross on the shields and standards of his army, and routed his rival.  Thus began the transition of the early church from a body of born-again believers to a state religion.

In 313 Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, granting freedom of religion to Christians in his empire.  In 317 he mediated a dispute between the Donatist church and the Roman church and issued an edict confiscating all the religious property of the Donatists and deposing their religious leaders.  In 325 he summoned the leaders of the Roman church to the Council of Nicaea to establish doctrinal standards for the church.

Constantine favoured Christianity as a means of bringing stability to the Roman Empire, therefore he watched over the church to guide it in the direction he desired.  He died in 337 AD and the Roman Catholic church, the only permitted form of Christianity under Constantine, went on to establish its authority over the Empire, requiring all citizens to be baptized into the church in infancy.

This was contrary to the apostolic faith and required a man of genius to establish a doctrinal foundation to justify the establishment of a state religion form of Chrisitanity.  This man was Augustine of Hippo, Saint Augustine, who lived from 354 to 430 AD.  Augustine was the first to speak of an invisible church, that true Christians are an invisible body known only to God, and no one can know who among the members of the visible church are genuine Christians.

The doctrine of a just war originates with Augustine, also the doctrine that the church has a right to compel people within its territory to be baptized and to prevent them by force from leaving the church.

It was found necessary to develop a new doctrine of the means by which Jesus obtained forgiveness of sins for fallen man.  The Biblical doctrine that He was the second Adam, the Son of God from heaven and the spotless Lamb of God whose sacrifice atoned for our sins was replaced.  The new teaching was that Jesus was one part the son of Mary and one part the Son of God and that it was the son of Mary who died on the cross, then descended into hell and suffered unbelievable torments equivalent to the eternal punishment of all who would ever be saved.  It was at this time that the phrase “descended into hell” was added to the Apostles’ Creed.  The version of the Apostles’ Creed found in the Martyrs Mirror is the original version, lacking this phrase.  Thus the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints is based on the belief that Christ has already borne the punishment due to the elect, so there is no way they can ever face damnation.

Augustine taught that God had predestined before the beginning of time those who should be saved and those who should be lost.  The elect were then called by Irresistible Grace, by which they could not refuse the call to salvation.  And to these God granted perseverance, the grace to remain saved throughout their life.  This doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, originating with Augustine, is the basis of the doctrine of eternal security, or once saved, always saved.

Augustine also taught the perpetual virginity of Mary.  This is why many commentators have a problem declaring that James, Jude and Joses were the natural sons of Joseph and Mary and try to develop alternate explanations of who they might be.

Augustine also taught that the sacraments are a means of grace and that they are a means of grace even if the priest administering them is a known sinner.

John Calvin was a follower of Augustine, he strove to reform the church by emphasizing the doctrines first taught by Augustine.  The followers of Calvin are not only found in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, but also in the Southern Baptists, and other Baptist and evangelical denominations.  Churches vary in how strongly they teach Calvinism, but the most straightforward teaching is five point Calvinism, encapsulated in the TULIP formula:
T – Total depravity, man is so completely depraved that he has no ability to choose to be saved.
U – Unconditional election, salvation is not dependent on the conduct of the one who is saved.
L – Limited Atonement, Christ died only for those predestined to be saved.
I – Irresistible grace, man has no power to refuse the call to salvation.
P – Perseverance of the saints, those who are predestined to salvation can never be lost.

Many sincere Christians today believe that a person who has once given his heart to the Lord can never again be lost.  If one approaches the Bible with a predetermined belief that it teaches the unconditional eternal security of believers, it is possible to select verses to support this view, but such an interpretation is not apparent if one takes an unbiased approach to the Bible as a whole.

Proponents of this view are forced into a corner when trying to explain real life examples of those who have led overcoming Christian lives for years and then made choices that led them away from God.  Such people were never truly saved in the first place, they maintain.  If that would be the case, on what basis can anyone know that they are saved?  It appears to me that people who say such things have chosen a doctrine of eternal insecurity.

Beware of Greeks bearing gifts

Among the gifts bestowed upon us by the ancient Greeks there are many that are without a doubt of priceless value, such as democracy.  But there are others that were better left outside the gates, as the Trojan horse should have been.

Astrology is one.  Yet the belief persists among many today that the sign of the zodiac under which we were born determines our personality and the course and outcome of our lives.

The second is the pseudo-science of the four temperaments, based on the idea that our moods, emotions and behaviours are caused by body fluids, or “humours”: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.  As expounded by its modern adherents, the theory seems to explain a lot about our behaviour.  The problem is that it explains too much: we analyse our friends and put them into the proper pigeon-holes and interpret everything they say and do by the label on the pigeon-hole.

Psychology is the third.  “Psyche” is the Greek word for soul.  Psychology is the attempt to intellectually understand the workings of the soul and to bring healing to the troubled soul by therapeutic means.

The fourth and last is predestination.  The belief that some cosmic force has predetermined the entire course of our life before we were born goes back as least as far as Zeno and Plato.

Do you see the common thread in all of this?  The Greeks are trying to tell us “It’s not your fault!”  You are not to blame for any of the things that have gone wrong in your life, it was all caused by the stars, the humours in your body, or some other cosmic force.

But if nothing is our fault, there is nothing we can ever do to make things different.  We can’t repent of being born under the wrong star, or having the wrong temperament.  But we can repent of making wrong choices and doing bad things.  That is what the Bible tells us to do.  Beware of Greeks bearing gifts that would lead us away from this truth.

%d bloggers like this: