Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Unconditional Good News?

How strange to think we must communicate this gospel news conditionally by telling sinners that Jesus Christ will save them ‘if they believe.’ When will Jesus save these individuals? Either those to whom we witness have been reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:21) or not. How much more genuine our embrace of sinners would be if we looked upon these particular persons as being among those for whom Christ died. Premise B gives us biblical warrant for making this assumption. Because God in Christ has reconciled himself to them, therefore they must repent, believe, and joyfully obey. God will judge those who finally remain indifferent to or reject this message” (Neal Punt, “A Theology of Inclusivism.” Allendale, MI: Northland Books, 2008, page 186).
Have you ever had times in your life when someone said something that just took you by surprise? I have had that happen quite a bit in my 26 years of life. In fact, sometimes, I’ve been so shocked that I just stood there, speechless, dumbfounded...with a “deer-in-headlights” kind of look.
The first sentence of Punt’s statement above took me by surprise when I read it for the first time. If we can’t tell people that Christ will save them “provided they believe,” then what are we to tell sinners who need to be saved? That they are already saved, and just need to live like it? That seems to be Punt’s claim: “Because God in Christ has reconciled himself to them, therefore they must repent, believe, and joyfully obey.” But if Christ has reconciled them, and this reconciliation has been actualized, then why do they need to believe? To entertain this idea requires one to hold to Calvinist theology---something to which Neal Punt adheres. Several times in his book, he seems to attack the Arminian notion of potential salvation, such as can be seen in the following quote:
“Arminian exegetes have just as much trouble with the word ‘Savior’ in 1 Tim. 4:10. They accept the capitalization of ‘Savior’ because they say it does mean ‘Savior from sin.’ Dr. Clark Pinnock speaks on behalf of all Arminian exegetes when he says, ‘God is “the Savior of all men [potentially], and especially of those who believe [actually]”’ (1 Tim. 4:10)...Arminians fear that without the word ‘potentially’ this text would say God ‘is the Savior from sin for all persons,’ that is, universalism---all persons will be saved. To avoid this heresy, the word ‘potentially’ must be added in this text as in all the other so-called ‘universalistic’ texts” (Punt, “A Theology of Inclusivism,” page 117).
This “actualized salvation” of Punt’s must be proven from Scripture, not merely assumed. In making this claim, I am doing nothing different than Punt himself does in regard to Pinnock’s claim of “potential” salvation: “Where do Pinnock and other Arminians get the word ‘potentially’ for this and for all the other ‘universalistic’ texts? It comes neither from the immediate nor the extended context of the Bible” (117). Boldly enough, I will make the same charge about Punt’s claim of actualized salvation: it does not come from the Bible, but instead comes from Punt’s Calvinist presupposition.
First, let’s examine Punt’s words about how “strange” it seems to tell someone that God will save them if they only believe. He writes that this is ludicrous because
“Either those to whom we witness have been reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:21) or not.”
Punt quotes the verse 2 Corinthians 5:21. The verse states, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” The word “might” is represented in the subjunctive case, which emphasizes potentiality or possibility. This does not say that Christ became sin for us so “we would live up to the righteousness He has already purchased.” Rather, the verse says that He took on our sin so that we could have the possibility of becoming righteous by faith in Christ. One would have to do away with this in order to hold to Punt’s belief.
Next, prior to verse 21 comes verse 20, where Paul states, “we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (v. 20). The question we must ask ourselves is this: “If we are already reconciled to God, then why would Paul say, ‘Be reconciled to God’”? Punt assumes that reconciliation is actual for every person, but the apostle Paul here seems to disagree with him. Why, for instance, would a landlord tell someone “pay the rent,” if the rent has already been paid? If every person has already been reconciled, then for Paul to use these words would seem rather redundant and foolish. I don’t think the apostle Paul was redundant or said anything that would be illogical in the Scriptures. The question is, do you agree with Paul or Punt?
Punt is also disproved by the words of a verse believers everywhere hold dear, 2 Corinthians 5:17--- “Therefore, IF anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation...” (NKJV) The word “if” signifies a condition to being a new creation (that is, being in Christ). If Neal Punt is correct, then 2 Corinthians 5:17 implies that every person in the entire world alive at this moment is “in Christ” and is a new creation. Is every single person saved at this moment? You and I know from experience that every person is not saved. Therefore, the condition is there to explain why some are “new creation” and others are not. Punt overlooks this verse in his Calvinist presupposition that salvation is actualized for every person.
Look at Punt’s words: “either those to whom we witness have been reconciled to God or not.” The answer is, they are not reconciled to God until they believe. We’ve seen from 2 Corinthians 5 that there is a condition to being reconciled to God (see 2 Cor. 5:17). But there is also another reason why verses like 2 Cor. 5:18 cannot apply to every person--- the context of the letter itself.
To whom did Paul write the letter of 2 Corinthians? Did he write the letter to every single person, whether believer or unbeliever? Journey back to the beginning of 2 Corinthians to find the answer:
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in all Achaia” (2 Corinthians 1:1, NKJV).
Where in this does it mention the ordinary citizens of Corinth and all of Achaia? It doesn’t. The letter is addressed to “the church of God which is at Corinth” and “all the saints who are in all Achaia.” The letter is addressed to “the church” and “saints,” indicative of the saved. So God has reconciled the saved to Himself...that is, those who have confessed and believed on His name. Those who have not have yet to experience the reconciliation that Christ has achieved. For the sinner, reconciliation is possible...for the saved, salvation is actual. Punt fails to distinguish the difference between the two, and this costs him majorly in his exegetical work.
The world is reconciled to God in Christ...but, the purpose of Christ’s coming was so that “the world might be saved” (John 3:17), not that the world “would be saved.” The potential salvation for the world that Christ offers is still available today; but each person must confess and believe in order to experience the salvation Christ has already provided. In the same way that a prisoner is not freed until the money enters the hands of the court, so we are not freed from sin until we accept the redemption Christ has given. Christ desires that we be freed from sin...but He will not free us without us.
I will tackle the “strangeness” of Neal Punt’s claim in my next post.

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