Thursday, August 5, 2010

Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility: John 17:15 and 1 John 5:18

I love writing posts on divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Here at the Center for Theological Studies, I have written some posts already on these two biblical concepts; but I always love the idea of doing a new post on these same two biblical principles. It is my hope that all Christians everywhere will see that both concepts work together according to Scripture...that neither negates the other.

Today’s match-up will come from John 17:15 and 1 John 5:18. John 17:15 reads:

“I am not praying that You take them out of the world but that You protect them from the evil one” (John 17:15, Holman Christian Standard Bible).

And 1 John 5:18 reads:

“We know that everyone who has been born of God does not sin, but the one who is born of God keeps himself, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18).

In John 17, Jesus is praying what is known as His High Priestly Prayer to God the Father. Christ has done the work of His Father and now, is preparing for the road to the Crucifixion. Here in the Garden of Gethsemane, He begins to pray for His disciples (the seventy or so) as well as those who will come to believe in the Gospel message itself (v. 20). Verse 15, then, has to do with the believers, those disciples (the Twelve as well as others) who decided to follow Christ. He states here that He desires that the believers be preserved from evil (“that You protect them from the evil one”).

This verse has been used by Calvinists who espouse a doctrine they refer to as “The PRESERVATION of the Saints.” Now let me make it clear: I believe in the Lord’s preserving power. I believe that the believer, by faith, has been given preserving grace so as to sustain him in his fight against Satan, sin, and the world. After all, 1 Peter 1:5 states that the believers “are being protected by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”

Arminius himself states it as thus:

“But two things must be here observed. The first is, that this work of regeneration and illumination is not completed in one moment; but that it is advanced and promoted, from [die] time to time, by daily increase. For ‘our old man is crucified, that the body of sin might be destroyed,’ (Rom. Vi, 6,) and ‘that the inward man may be renewed day by day.’ (2 Cor. iv, 16.) For this reason, in regenerate persons, as long as they inhabit these mortal bodies, ‘the flesh lusteth against the Spirit.’ (Gal. v, 17.) Hence it arises, that THEY CAN NEITHER PERFORM ANY GOOD THING WITHOUT GREAT RESISTANCE AND VIOLENT STRUGGLES, NOR ABSTAIN FROM THE COMMISSION OF EVIL...the second thing to be observed is, that AS THE VERY FIRST COMMENCEMENT OF EVERY GOOD THING, SO LIKEWISE THE PROGRESS, CONTINUANCE AND CONFIRMATION, NAY, EVEN THE PERSEVERANCE IN GOOD, are not from ourselves, but from God through the Holy Spirit. For ‘He who hath begun a good work in you, will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ;’ (Phil. I,6;) and ‘we are kept by the power of God through faith.’ (1 Peter i, 5.) ‘The God of all grace makes us perfect, stablishes, strengthens and settles us.’ (i, 10.)” (James Arminius, “Works,” II:195. Translated by James Nichols).

Quoted behind Arminius’s comments on grace is a quote from the church father Augustine:

“Subsequent or following Grace does indeed assist the good purpose of man; but this good purpose would have no existence unless through preceding or preventing Grace. And though the desire of man, which is called good, be assisted by Grace when it begins to be; yet it does not begin without Grace, but is inspired by Him, concerning whom the Apostle writes thus, ‘Thanks be to God, who put the same earnest care into the heart of Titus for you.’ If God incites any one to have ‘an earnest care’ for others, He will ‘put it into the heart’ of some other person to have ‘an earnest care’ for him’" (Augustinus, Contra 2 Epistl. Pelag. L.2.c.9; quoted by James Nichols in his translation of Arminius; Arminius, “Works,” II:196).

As Arminius states above, the only way the believer can persevere in well-doing is because of the grace of God: “even the perseverance in good, [is] not from ourselves, but from God through the Holy Spirit.” And notice that Arminius also used Augustine’s words regarding “subsequent or following Grace.” This type of grace is what most believers know today as “persevering grace.”

At the same time, however, the grace of God in the life of the believer does not nullify his or her responsibility to persevere. This is why John testifies above in 1 John 5:18 that the “one born of God” preserves or keeps himself from sin.

Arminius had this to say about the actions of the new believer:

“For when a new light and knowledge of God and Christ, and of the Divine Will, have been kindled in his mind; and when new affections, inclinations and motions agreeing with the law of God, have been excited in his heart, and new powers have been produced in him; it comes to pass,---that, being liberated from the kingdom of darkness, and being now made ‘light in the Lord,’ (Ephes. v, 8,) he understands the true and saving Good;---that, after the hardness of his stony heart has been changed into the softness of flesh, and the law of God according to the covenant of grace has been inscribed on it, (Jer. xxxi, 32---35,) he loves and embraces that which is good, just, and holy;---and that, being made capable in Christ, co-operating now with God he prosecutes the Good which he knows and loves, and he begins himself to perform it in deed” (James Arminius, “Works,” II: 194-195).

How do we reconcile such Scriptures that promote the preservation of God with the perseverance of the believer? One such good text that seems to place these two in harmony is Hebrews 13, where the writer gives a benediction of blessing to the persecuted Jews who are scattered all over the world:

“Now may the God of peace, who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus---the great Shepherd of the sheep---with the blood of the everlasting covenant, EQUIP YOU WITH ALL THAT IS GOOD TO DO HIS WILL, working in you what is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen” (Hebrews 13:20-21, HCSB).

Why is God equipping believers with good things? So that they can “do His will,” perform that which is pleasing in His sight. Divine sovereignty is clearly demonstrated here: God supplies the good. Without God supplying the good, there is no way that you or I could do ANYTHING good in the Christian life. Without God giving us the power to work the good, we would work only evil instead. But God supplies the good not because He will do all the work for us; no---instead, He requires that “we” follow and obey His commands. Since we have been given “the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21), we now have all that we need to live the Spirit-filled life.

So God equips us to work the good. But what happens in moments of temptation or weakness?

“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to humanity. God is faithful and He will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, so that you are able to bear it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

The Lord provides a way of escape, a way out of temptation, so that we can endure it. God’s faithfulness is demonstrated in that He provides persevering power; my faithfulness is to be demonstrated by enduring the temptation, grabbing ahold of God’s persevering power and choosing to resist the flesh.

As I mentioned above, Calvinists often refer to “the preservation of the saints,” and consider preservation to mean what the Bible calls “perseverance.” However, this is not what the Bible teaches; rather, God provides the power to endure temptation so that I can choose to endure it. I am enabled by God to endure it, but I can resist God’s power and choose to give in. Divine preservation does not cancel out human perseverance, for, if it does, then there is no human responsibility. Still, though, Scripture tells the believer that “you need endurance” (Heb. 10:36); and if the Bible is the ultimate authority in my life, I must believe that I must endure.

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