I’ve typically been more dismissive of things like predestination and Calvinism than my actual knowledge of them would warrant, I’m sure. Usually I see it as some sort of frontal assault on the whole edifice of free will, an edifice on which I’ve planted flags and staked out some intellectual commitment. My response to the Calvinist (and to Determinists too) is to give the obligatory nod toward the boatload of scriptures they have in support of what they’re saying, and then to wish I could hear them also incorporate (or explain away?) the other boatload of scriptures that it seems to me they are ignoring. If we really have no freedom, if God really does determine and do everything, then where does this leave the “Choose Life!” exhortation of Deuteronomy 30 or the “Go and sin no more” command to the woman in John 8 (will be returning to this one below), or the many imperatives to be doers and not just hearers … to randomly pick a few from that second boatload that Calvinists never quite seem to get around to addressing (or so I here imagine).
Yet now I feel I may have been more properly introduced to the issue at hand by one young seminary professor, Dr. Jono Linebaugh, whose New Testament survey classes I’ve been listening to; (sorry, they’re understandably behind a registration wall as Knox Theological Seminary protects its course offerings, but perhaps something like it is out there on youtube – you can certainly find other great talks from Dr. Jono Linebaugh like this one about preaching; -only 590, now 591 youtube views which means he is an undiscovered treasure.)
But this young theologian of the reformed church has now given me what I suppose must be a better representation for where the Reformed church is coming from on some of these issues, and I want to wrestle with it online here where others can weigh in on what has returned to being a live issue again for me. He did it with the following teachings (paraphrased through my own recollections here).
He spoke of the debate between Luther and Erasmus. Apparently Erasmus stands in for what would sound like the traditional Christian approach to me, in thinking that people are obliged to respond to God. God accomplishes the hard work of salvation, yes, but people have to accept it. We have a choice to make. Luther, on the other hand, responds that actually in thinking so, Erasmus has shifted the focus of salvation away from God and onto the human. This so-called “tiny” matter of the human needing to accept God’s grace in Christ is really a huge thing – it’s the linchpin of the whole enterprise. Now suddenly it is the human who has accomplished their own salvation by giving the correct response to Christ. And it is no “tiny” matter at all; it is everything. Okay – so set that debate aside for the moment, Dr. Linebaugh revisits the story of the adulterous woman.
“What if”, he asks us to imagine, – what if the woman caught in adultery after she had left, un-condemned by Jesus; what if she repeated the offense, was caught and brought before Jesus again? What would happen? Dr. Linebaugh concedes that a lot of Christians get angry with his answer, but I think his response remains sound … we could imagine the angry Pharisees (and even Jesus’ own disciples) delighting in this new test of what Jesus would do … “How many times are you going to forgive her, Jesus? – up to seven times?” (perhaps seventy times seven?). At this point we all recall what Jesus has taught elsewhere, and we know the answer cannot be anything other than the realization that the woman’s salvation had not (and never did) rest as some condition of her obedience. Jesus did not say to her “…if you don’t want to be condemned, then go and sin no more.” Had he done that, her salvation would become her own work. Instead Jesus really says “…did no one condemn you? Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Her salvation is 100% contingent on God’s mercy and 0% on her own future works of obedience. And if we think otherwise we begin to let law and works creep back in to a salvific role that only the cross can properly fill. The “Go and sin no more” is Jesus telling her she has been freed from that life; that she should not (need not) return there. It most emphatically is not him threatening her that she has now used up her one mulligan and so had better straighten up going forward, or else.
So to my mind, Dr. Linebaugh (or all the other prior theologians he is following in this) have an unimpeachable take on this. How indeed could we think otherwise? Luther; score 1; Erasmus-0.
That much seems settled to me; so is my thinking aligned with the reformed tradition now? And yet there is still the little matter of that other boatload of scriptures which still have not gone away! John writes some pretty hard things in his other epistles about the true status of sinners or of those fail to love. (see 1 John 3). And yet in the first chapter of that same epistle we read that if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. And John doesn’t seem to be limiting that observation only to unbelievers. And yet that is key. We are to be cleansed of that sin so that in Christ we are no longer identified as sinners. Yet, even as believers we all know that we continue to sin; as Paul so passionately agonizes over in Romans 7. One cannot escape that tension even from one side of the page to the other.
So those of you who do hail from the reformed traditions … how do you put all this together? Do you let the locus of so-called “free-will” come into its own only in the context of Christ’s setting us free? As in, apart from Christ I am not free to do anything other than sin; but thanks to Christ I am now free to live righteously in him? We still hold each other responsible for our choices, whether we are believers or not, and that universal responsibility seems to be another key ingredient that cannot let Erasmus’ challenge be seen as entirely defeated above. Freedom and responsibility are inseparable twins, I think. And the Bible speaks of both often enough that neither will be easily dismissed.
Perhaps as I continue with more of Dr. Linebaugh’s N.T. survey lessons, some of this will become reconciled somehow. But if any here have input, I’d be interested.