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.

 

June 5, 2017

Election and Eternal Salvation (Part 2)

by Russell Young

Romans 8 brings clarity to the issue of election. In verses 29─30 Paul wrote: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.

Earlier teaching in Romans 8 addresses the means of meeting God’s righteous requirements through living according to the Spirit (v 4), of being led by the Spirit to be a son (v 14), of suffering for victory over temptations (v 17), and of attaining the redemption of the body for adoption (v 23). Following these presentations, Paul addresses the intervention of the Father and the Spirit (v 26─27) which helps in bringing understanding to God’s “foreknowledge.” Clearly, God’s knowledge of a person is required before their particular need (weakness) can be addressed for the fulfilment of his plan with the destiny of glory.

The psalmist sheds some light on our understanding of knowledge. The psalmist wrote: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Ps 34:18 NIV) And, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken spirit and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Ps 51:17 NIV) It could be that knowledge of the heart is the “foreknowledge” upon which his selection is made…a heart that lacks pride but is humble and receptive to his sovereignty-a teachable or trainable heart. Both the psalmist and Jeremiah reveal that God searches the hearts of all people. “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward a man according to his conduct, according to what his deeds deserve.” (Jer 17:10 NIV) Psalm 139 elaborates on God’s knowledge of an individual. He uses that knowledge, foreknowledge, before he intervenes in a person’s life.

The Father searches hearts and it is he who gives the Spirit. (Jn 15:26; Gal 4:6; Lk 11:13) According to his mercy and grace the Father chooses or elects those whom he will bless with the Spirit so that his plan might be accomplished. Following this, he works with the Spirit in the lives of those whom he has elected. “In the same way (waiting patiently for the redemption of our bodies), the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts (the Father) knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” (Rom 8:26─27)

It is in this process that further knowledge is gained. Although those to whom he has given the Spirit were chosen for it, not all will respond obediently. Jesus said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?” (Lk 6:46) Some will deny the Spirit, and others will quench or thwart the Spirit but those who are obedient, those who love him, who have been called according to hs purpose God knows and they are predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son because he is faithful and is committed to working with them. Without obedience a person cannot fulfil the plan of God and it is through its practice that the Lord said a person would remain in his love (Jn 15:10) and would find eternal salvation. (Heb 5:9) Those who live obediently to the Spirit will be known by God and will have been predestined through his plan to be justified and glorified. These will be the elect or selected.

All, except those whose hearts have been “hardened” for the achievement of a specific purpose have the same opportunity to obtain eternal salvation. The heavens declare his glory so “men are without excuse.” (Rom 1:20) “Whoever is thirsty, let him come.” (Rev 22:17) “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men.” (Titus 2:11) “God wants all men to be saved.” (1 Tim 2:4) All have opportunity to gain knowledge of him and of him and his majesty but not all will humble themselves and their pride will be their undoing.

 

June 4, 2017

Election and Eternal Salvation (Part 1)

by Russell Young

Election refers to the selection by God of a people for a specific purpose. Quite often it is accepted as the designation of a person to enjoy God’s eternal kingdom. Election has taken place from the earliest of times with Noah and Abraham. Some accept that all people who will dwell eternally with God had been elected his people from before the creation of the world and this often accepted as an act of God’s “sovereign grace.”

Whenever it takes place election or selection of an individual is God’s act of determination. In speaking of Jacob and Esau Paul wrote: “Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad– in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls-she was told, ‘The older will serve the younger.’” (Rom 9:11-12 NIV)

God’s practice of “election” has a purpose, as in “God’s purpose in election.” This might be easier to understand stated as, “God’s purpose through election.” That is, God elects for a reason or to accomplish his ends. He has a plan and it can only be accomplished through his handiwork and through the expression of his sovereignty. Lacking either a plan or his sovereign authority, only anarchy and chaos would result. Election must be recognized as a means by which God fulfills his plan.

To the Ephesians Paul wrote: “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” (Eph 1:11 NIV) According to Paul, God has a plan and is working it out. Those who will have been elected will have satisfied his plan since his plan was destined to accomplish his goal.

Election has two distinct applications so that “his will” might be accomplished. These might be seen from macro and micro perspectives. His hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is an example of election’s macro application. Concerning Pharaoh, the LORD said, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’” (Rom 9:17 NIV) God’s purpose was to make a declaration for the benefit of his name and to all the earth. The selection or election of Israel as his special people is another example of a macro application.

Through Jacob’s election the Lord made clear his right of sovereignty over individual lives and human traditions. The traditional approach would have been to have God’s blessing rest on Rebekah’s elder son however, the LORD clarified that God’s purpose in the election of Jacob was so that his choosing would not, and could not, be based of the “work” of humankind but by determination of the one who calls…the LORD himself. The principle being revealed is that God is in charge! Later in Romans Paul recorded: “Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden,” (Rom 9:18) but this mercy and hardening of hearts is according to his purpose in or through election.

Ephesians 1:4-6 is often used as support for the thought that God elected his children before the beginning of time. Paul wrote: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will-to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.” (NIV) However these passages present several ideas and are really a presentation of God’s plan as is revealed in verse 11. “In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…” God’s plan was that those “in him” would be holy and blameless in his sight” and would “be adopted as sons.” His plan was devised before the creation of the world, specific individuals were not elected at that time. The revelation of the specifics of his plan comprises much of the New Testament. In this instance Paul was specifically addressing the “faithful,” those who were adhering to his plan.

…continued tomorrow…

May 22, 2015

Mercy to Those Who Doubt

Late last night, I was re-reading a 2013 article at the blog Parchment and Pen by Michael Patton dealing with doubt. It drew me to verse 22 of Jude:

Jude 22 Be merciful to those who doubt; 23 save others by snatching them from the fire; to others show mercy, mixed with fear—hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

The Reformation Bible Commentary states:

The exact Greek text of these verses is disputed, and it is hard to tell whether two or three groups of sinners are in view. Whatever the textual solution, Jude clearly recognizes that different pastoral strategies are to be employed with different people. Some can profit from gentle counseling (Gal. 6:1). Others will require confrontation or action of some sort, to pull them “out of the fire.”  (emphasis added)

That sets the tone I believe for anything you read in other commentaries on this verse. The Asbury Bible Commentary states:

Despite his vigorous exposure of the opponents’ errors, in vv. 22-23 Jude calls the church to evangelize them. Jude holds out the evangelistic hope for renewal, even to selfish schismatics who upset congregational fellowship and mission. Jude’s prescription of edification for the saints and evangelism of the schismatics is an effective antidote for contemporary church fights as well.

which seems to reflect that “doubters” would refer to Jude’s opponents or those unevangelized.

But Matthew Henry sees this referring to “brethren” who have fallen into error.

He directs them how to behave towards erring brethren: And of some have compassion, etc., Jude 1:22, 23. Observe, (1.) We ought to do all we can to rescue others out of the snares of the devil, that they may be saved from (or recovered, when entangled therein, out of) dangerous errors, or pernicious practices. We are not only (under God) our own keepers, but every man ought to be, as much as in him lies, his brother’s keeper; none but a wicked Cain will contradict this, Gen. 4:9. We must watch over one another, must faithfully, yet prudently, reprove each other, and set a good example to all about us.

(2.) This must be done with compassion, making a difference. How is that? We must distinguish between the weak and the wilful. [1.] Of some we must have compassion, treat them with all tenderness, restore them in the spirit of meekness, not be needlessly harsh and severe in our censures of them and their actions, nor proud and haughty in our conduct towards them; not implacable, nor averse to reconciliation with them, or admitting them to the friendship they formerly had with us, when they give evident or even strongly hopeful tokens of a sincere repentance: if God has forgiven them, why should not we? We infinitely more need his forgiveness than they do, or can do, ours, though perhaps neither they nor we are justly or sufficiently sensible of this. [2.] Others save with fear, urging upon them the terrors of the Lord; “Endeavor to frighten them out of their sins; preach hell and damnation to them.” But what if prudence and caution in administering even the most just and severe reproofs be what are primarily and chiefly here intimated–(I do but offer it for consideration); as if he had said, “Fear lest you frustrate your own good intentions and honest designs by rash and imprudent management, that you do not harden, instead of reclaiming, even where greater degrees of severity are requisite than in the immediately foregoing instance.” We are often apt to over-do, when we are sure we mean honestly, and think we are right in the main; yet the very worst are not needlessly, nor rashly, nor to extremity, to be provoked, lest they be thereby further hardened through our default.—“Hating even the garment spotted with the flesh, that is, keeping yourselves at the utmost distance from what is or appears evil, and designing and endeavoring that others may do so too. Avoid all that leads to sin or that looks like sin,” 1 Thess. 5:22.

I suspect Matthew Henry has more there than was in view in the article that I read. The short Jude passage raises rich and complex issues. Michael Patton was dealing more with the issue of assurance of salvation which we looked at here recently and also here. Looking at people — especially in the Reformed tradition — who have seemingly crossed the line of faith but lack assurance that they are among the elect.

The question is Can one be absolutely sure that they are a believer and how important is this assurance in their walk with the Lord? Many Christians don’t believe an individual can be assured of their ultimate salvation. Many believe one can lose their salvation. Catholics believe that “mortal sins” (really nasty sins such as adultery,  rejection of the perpetual virginity of Mary, or missing Mass without a valid excuse) can cause a Cathlic to lose their salvation. Arminians and Wesleyans believe one can cease to believe, thereby forfeiting their seat in heaven. Therefore, from the perspective of those who don’t believe salvation can be lost, these belief systems cannot offer any assurance. The criticism would be that no one could ever be sure, until death, whether or not they are saved. After all, what if I decided to sleep in on Sunday and then immediately died of a heart attack without repenting? How do I know for sure if my faith is going to last until the end? For Catholics, the fact that one cannot be assured of their salvation is dogmatized.

…Ironically, for the Catholic, to believe that one can be assured of their salvation would be the means by which they lose their salvation!

He continues,

There are three primary reasons Christians doubt. The first has to do with objective intellectual issues. These doubt the Bible’s truthfulness, Christ’s resurrection, and even God’s existence (among other things).  Another group doubts God’s love and presence in their lives. The last group doubts their salvation and the reality of their faith. These are always wondering if they have true saving faith or a false faith. This last group lacks assurance.

It may surprise you to know that just about every contact I have had with people who are doubting their salvation are Calvinistic in their theology. In other words, they believe in unconditional election. These are the ones who believe in perseverance of the saints. These are the ones that believe that we cannot lose our salvation! Yet these are the ones who are doubting their faith the most.

Their issue has to do with their election. Are they truly among the elect? If they are, they believe their faith will persevere until the end. But if they are not, there is no hope. But how are they to know for sure whether they are elect? Maybe their faith is a stated faith? Maybe it is false. The gentleman I talked to today was so riddled with doubt, he was having thoughts of suicide. “How do I know my faith is an elect faith?” He wanted assurance so badly, but felt that his Calvinistic theology prevented him from ever having such assurance.

He adds,

When we present the Gospel to someone and they say they have trusted in Christ, we do them a disservice to force assurance upon them. After all, how do we know that their faith is real? We don’t. Instead of assurance, maybe we should give them some of the Hebrews warning passages. Maybe we should speak to them as Christ spoke to the seven churches in Revelation: “to him who overcomes . . .” Maybe we should encourage them to “test their faith” (2 Cor. 13:5). Maybe we should warn them that there is a possible disqualification. (1 Cor. 9:27). This may not fit into your thinking, but we all know there is a faith that does not save (James 2:19). Why not bring this up?

I encourage you to read the entire article.