Christianity 201

April 13, 2018

The Conversion of Saul: Did He Have a Choice?

Filed under: Christianity - Devotions — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:35 pm
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The most important event in human history apart from the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the conversion to Christianity of Saul of Tarsus. If Saul had remained a Jewish rabbi, we would be missing thirteen of twenty-seven books of the New Testament and Christianity’s early major expansion to the Gentiles. Humanly speaking, without Paul Christianity would probably be of only antiquarian or arcane interest, like the Dead Sea Scrolls community or the Samaritans.

IVP Commentary as cited at BibleGateway.com; emphasis added.

NLT Acts 9:1 Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers.  So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains.

As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”

“Who are you, lord?” Saul asked.

And the voice replied, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink.

10 Now there was a believer in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, calling, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord!” he replied.

11 The Lord said, “Go over to Straight Street, to the house of Judas. When you get there, ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying to me right now. 12 I have shown him a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him so he can see again.”

13 “But Lord,” exclaimed Ananias, “I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers  in Jerusalem! 14 And he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest everyone who calls upon your name.”

15 But the Lord said, “Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. 16 And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.”

17 So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19 Afterward he ate some food and regained his strength.

In light of the divide between Reformed and Arminian approaches to grace and salvation, the conversion of Saul (to Christ, and then in name, to Paul) seems like an open and shut case. I found this article at the Society of Evangelical Arminians helpful to seeing things in the text which are easy to miss. This is actually a series of responses to the title’s question that were posted on the Society’s Facebook page. Click the title below to read at source.

What About Paul’s “Irresistible” Conversion?

In our Facebook Outreach Group, we were presented with this question:

How should Paul’s conversion be interpreted? It doesn’t seem like much of a choice at first glance – but that God showed up and said “you’re mine.”

Here are the various responses:

1.  He said he was not disobedient to the heavenly vision (free will).

2.  God taking it upon Himself to introduce Himself to someone isn’t a conversion. The per se conversion occurred and revealed itself in Paul’s response.

2a. So God doesn’t kick in the door?

2b. Another great example of God introducing Himself was the burning bush. Although Moses did require additional convincing.

2c. God had been working on Paul long before the Damascus road experience.  Based on His foreknowledge God had chosen Paul to become an Apostle called out of due season. Paul had not been taught by Christ personally like the other Apostles. Paul is not only called to conversion but to Apostleship to the Gentiles. God reveals himself to Paul in unusual ways and instructs him in unusual ways but Paul’s responses are his own even though his prevenient grace is unusual.

3.  I think that is reading too much into the narrative. Here is something Brian Abasciano wrote a while back in response to the same sort of question:

“I believe Paul did have the ability to resist God in his Damascus Road experience. At the very best for the contention that he could not have done so, it is speculation whether he could or not. The text certainly does not indicate that he could not. On the other hand, I would say that Paul actually does imply that he could have disobeyed the vision. In Acts 26:19, he says, “So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven.” Telling someone you were not disobedient to something without provocation to do so seems to imply that you could have been disobedient to it. If I had replied to you, “As you can see, I have not ignored your email to me . . .” that would imply that I could have ignored your email. Rhetorically, what that sort of thing does is emphasize one’s obedience by using the fact that one could have done otherwise.”

I would add that the Israelites often experienced incredible manifestations of God and yet continued to rebel against Him, so it seems we have no real basis for correlating a powerful vision of God with irresistible response.

4.  Paul wasn’t saved until he prayed and sought God after being blinded.

5.  Paul was exposed to Christians and their witness repeatedly.  God had, through prevenient grace, been convicting Paul of the truths of the Gospel and drawing him to repent and believe in Christ.  Paul had been having a hard time resisting the truth of the Gospel. It was hard for him “to kick against the pricks.”

6.  I agree with the preceding comments, but I’d like to add three things…

(1) For God to use external means to convert Saul of Tarsus to Christ, does not prove a Calvinist’s assertion of God using internal means of “forcible regeneration upon the unbelieving.”

(2) Paul tells us why God did it. He says that God knew that he [Paul] had acted in ignorance.

(3) Even if God used “overwhelming means” to secure the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, to the point where conversion was rendered certain, how would the raising-up of one man to apostleship, for the greater benefit of humanity in spreading the gospel to all men, establish a bifurcation of elect vs. non-classes of humanity? At most, it would only speak of what God was doing in the life of that one individual person, in terms of how God would bless “all the families of the earth” through him, fulfilling in one man, God’s purpose in the election of the Jews as His witness nation.

 

December 7, 2011

Deconstructing Depravity, Totally

Oh Oh! We’ve used up our three wishes. Apparently Jim Greer’s writing has already graced the pages of Christianity 201 three times, including some rather recently.  But how could I let this one pass? It’s just too good not to have you all consider this topic. So you can do the polite thing and click over to Not For Itching Ears, or you can simply keep reading the post here which I have stolen borrowed. Jim, I promise, one more and we’ll put you on the payroll.  For the rest of us, I guess instead of reading at the newsstand, we should just buy a subscription…  (Click now!  This means you! Yes, you!)

Could the Doctrine of Total Depravity be Totally Depraved?

Over here at Not For Itching Ears we like to discuss issues that challenge our view of Christianity and the Church.   It is healthy to consider what one believes about the Christian faith and how we express that faith in our corporate church life.  If all we ever do is listen to ourselves, we can inadvertently become the kind of people Paul warned Timothy about:  People who surround themselves with “teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear.”  Today’s post is an attempt to counter that tendency among us as we discuss the Doctrine of  Total Depravity.  To do this, we turn to a passage from  “Reconsidering Tulip”by Alexander J. Renault.  It is written from an Orthodox perspective.

Like many of you, I have always assumed that Total Depravity was a doctrine universally accepted by the church of all ages.  But I was wrong.  It is a rather new concept.  In fact the early church fathers, categorically rejected the idea.  That troubles me a lot.  If Paul understood humanity to be totally depraved or to have a total inability, why did his disciples and the disciples after him flat-out deny it?  Calvinism doesn’t work without this idea, so I can see why we would hesitate to even discuss it.  It wasn’t until Calvin that this idea became the unquestionable doctrine it has become.

I don’t think this article settles the question, but the author does bring out some interesting things that most of probably have not considered.

So, let the Discussion begin…

“The immediate concomitant of the first sin was the total depravity of human nature. The contagion of his sin at once spread through the entire man, leaving no part of his nature untouched, but vitiating every power and faculty of body and soul.” Louis Berkhof

The ontological problem with Total depravity is with the word “nature.” According to Total depravity, our very nature has changed. But what is a nature? In technical terms, “nature” refers to the essence of something—that which makes a thing a thing at its deepest level.

The early church Fathers used the term ousia for nature or essence. God is one nature (ousia) and three persons. Christ and the Father are of the same ousia. The incarnate Christ has two natures—human and divine.

So, if humans are intrinsically sinful in their essence (i.e. “sinful nature”), then God created sin. The Reformed will of course argue, “No, man was created with a good nature, but that nature changed.” But how can a nature change? A nature is the definition of a thing, and can only be defined by the one who creates the thing. What is the nature of a brick, for example? It’s a small, rectangular, hand-held fire-baked building block. If a single brick is broken, it doesn’t change the definition of brick nature. even if someone destroys every brick in the world, that still doesn’t change the definition of what a brick is. It doesn’t change brick nature. A man cannot change his nature any more than a brick could change its nature. Only God can change the nature/definition/essence of a thing. But to do so would make God the author of sin. . . . . . .

To take it to a more personal level, did God make you personally? Did He knit you together in your mother’s womb? If not, then God is not your creator, and I suppose it doesn’t matter what He thinks. But if He did create you, then what kind of nature did He create you with? A good nature, or a sinful nature? The answer that the church has historically given is that you are created with a good nature. You are created in the image of God. You are created to be an icon of God—a picture of God, here on earth.

But like a gold ring in a pile of manure, we are glorious creatures bound by sin and corruption. The nature or value of the gold ring doesn’t change, even if the environment does. Likewise, it is difficult for our true nature to be seen when we’re buried in a stinking pile of death and rot.

. . . . . Again, if sin is intrinsic to humanity, then Adam wasn’t human before he fell, nor will we be human when we’re in heaven, where there will be no sin. But if sin is foreign to our true nature, foreign to the image of god, then it makes little sense to say that we have a “sinful nature” . . . .

. . . . Another major problem is encountered when we confuse person with nature. What is a person? We might say that it is a unique manifestation of a nature. The early greeks used the term hypostasis for person and ousia for nature. Christ is one person (hypostasis) with two natures (ousia). The Trinity is one in essence, but with three persons (hypostases). There is only one human nature (or “humanity”) expressed uniquely in six billion different human persons. . . .

. . . The doctrine of Total depravity states that we are “utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to turn to Christ in faith for salvation.” This is because, as Berkhof says, we have depraved natures, and we only choose what our nature dictates. In other words, we cannot help but to choose sin, because we have a sinful nature. But is choice a function of person or of nature?  Do people choose to do things or do natures choose to do things? I believe it’s a function of person, not nature.

Think about this idea of person vs. nature with the Trinity: God is one divine nature (ousia) and three persons (hypostases). can “holiness” be separated from God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit? No, because holiness is an aspect of God’s nature. It is a natural attribute. Can “incarnation” be separated from God the Father? Yes. God the Father was not incarnate, but the Son was. Thus, incarnation is a personal attribute of the second person of the Trinity, not a natural attribute shared by all three persons of the godhead. . . .

. . . . Likewise, sin is a personal attribute and not a natural/essential one. If our choice to act sinfully was from our nature, then that would imply that all of our actions are simply the result of what our nature dictates. But the problem with that line of reasoning is that God Himself couldn’t help but to create, redeem, etc., because it’s His nature and not His personal free choice. This would mean that God created the world not because He chose to, but because He had to, according to His nature. He saved us not because He chose to, but because He had to, according to His nature. I’m inclined rather to agree with St. Patrick of Ireland, who said that the lord “gladly and of His own free will pardoned me.”

We can begin to see how a confusion of person and nature leads to a very limited God with no free choice. . . .

. . . . of vital importance to the discussion on Total depravity, and unfortunately all but neglected by most Reformed in my experience, is the doctrine of the incarnation. This brings the discussion of human nature out of the simply anthropological realm and into the christological realm.

The crux of the matter is this: if Christ did not have a human nature, then He cannot save us. If Christ was fully human, but not fully God, then He cannot bring us up to God. If He is fully God but not fully human, then He cannot come completely down to us and bridge the gap between us and God. The first several ecumenical councils of the church all dealt with this issue.

It is generally agreed among the Reformed that Christ was fully God and fully human. Unfortunately, the implications of this are not always understood by the Reformed. For if Christ is fully human, then He must have a human soul, a human will, a human mind—in short, a human nature. And yet He was without sin. This tells us that sin is not an integral part of human nature, and that one is still human apart from sin. Otherwise, either 1) christ was just as sinful as we are, or else 2) christ wasn’t fully human and can’t really save us.

John 1:14 – And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Heb 2:11, 17 – For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren … Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High priest in things pertaining to God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.

This Hebrews passage is especially significant regarding Christ’s  human nature. It says that “in all things” He had to be made human.   And yet He was without sin. This would suggest that “sin nature” is in  fact foreign to true “human nature.

For Another interesting discussion on a topic you may have always assumed could not be challenged, see our series of articles called “A Compelling Argument AGAINST Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) or our series called “A Strong Argument Against Calvinism?”

~Jim Greer

For today, I’m closing comments here in order to encourage you to generate discussion at the source blog, where Jim is, I’m sure, more prepared to deal with issues arising from today’s discussion than I would be !!  I’m sure that for some of you this strikes at the heart of all you hold dear, but remember that ‘holding dear’ shouldn’t be the basis of establishing a personal, systematic theology for any of us.

June 29, 2010

I Cor. 1 (sort of)

This morning I began the day reading the first half of I Corinthians.   In the first chapter, I paused at verses 22-23:

22Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (NIV)

I noticed again the recurring conflict in scripture between grace and knowledge or between word and spirit; only in this case it’s between signs and wisdom.  The Jews expect to see signs and miracles, while the Greek mindset is to look for a philosophy that satisfies the rational mind.

I couldn’t resist a potential contemporary paraphrase:

People with a Charismatic leaning look for signs and wonders, and those with a Calvinist leaning look for great preaching and teaching; but we’re just sticking to the simple story of Christ’s death and resurrection.

Okay, it was stereotypes.   I’ll try to do better tomorrow.   Here’s how Eugene Peterson translates those two verses (plus a couple extra):

22-25While Jews clamor for miraculous demonstrations and Greeks go in for philosophical wisdom, we go right on proclaiming Christ, the Crucified. Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd. But to us who are personally called by God himself—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s ultimate miracle and wisdom all wrapped up in one. Human wisdom is so tinny, so impotent, next to the seeming absurdity of God. Human strength can’t begin to compete with God’s “weakness.”

June 5, 2010

Can One Sin Separate Us From God?

Martinez calls himself “The Seeking Disciple” and blogs here.   This is the second section of a June 3rd post:

…My question is how much sin can a person get away with before they fall away? The carnal Christian teaching of some has created three types of people. Lost, Saved, and Carnal. For example, Charles Swindoll teaches that the truth of the carnal Christian is the one truth that he wishes people in the world could understand. The carnal Christian explains how people who claim to follow Christ can commit adultery, lie, cheat, steal, murder, lust, etc. Others, such as John MacArthur, point out that the carnal Christian teaching is an insult to the cross and to God’s grace that teaches us to deny sin (Titus 2:12).

And yet MacArthur believes that believers do fall into sin and commit horrible acts. He does believe that believers should pursue holiness but he also teaches that the sinful nature still indwells the believer along with the Spirit of God and that often the sinful nature wins the conflicts (Galatians 5:16-17). Many Bible teachers (and not just Calvinists) teach that we do sin (sometimes daily) and that we can sin willfully and grossly.

Can we? Some Arminians such as Daniel Corner teach that one sin can separate us from God. He defines sin as willful and unwillful sins. He points out that the Law of Moses allowed sacrifices for both types of sin (Leviticus 5:14-6:7). Corner asks the question, “How many times must a man sleep with another woman before he officially becomes an adulterer? How many times must a person steal something before they become a thief? How many lies must a person tell before they become a liar?”

I would point out that Jesus said that sin is not just an issue outwardly but inwardly in Matthew 5. Jesus also said that sin begins in the heart (Mark 7:20-23). When a person comitts adultery, it is a heart issue. Calvinist John Piper says that the issue of sin, at its very root, is unbelief in God and His authority (Hebrews 3:12, 14). Piper in fact preached a series of sermons entitled, “The Unbelief of Sin” with titles such as “The Unbelief of Adultery” and “The Unbelief of Lying.”

My answer is that only God knows a person’s heart. We can judge by His Word (John 7:24) and we are called to judge in the Church those living in sin even putting them out of fellowship if necessary (see 1 Corinthians 5). Jesus spoke about brothers sinning against brothers and how to deal with that in Matthew 18:15-20. I do believe that we need to heed 1 Corinthians 10:12 and abide by 2 Corinthians 13:5 and make sure that we are in the faith. We are to make our calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10-11) by striving for holiness (1 Peter 1:15-16). When we sin, we should confess that sin to the Father (1 John 1:9). If need be, we should confess that sin to a brother or sister in the Lord (James 5:16). If we see a brother or sister in sin, we should warn them that no unrighteous person will inherit the kingdom of God (Ephesians 5:3-10). We should warn them to forsake their sins lest they become ensnared by sin (2 Peter 2:20-22).