Can Free Will Explain the Conversion of Sinners?

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How many times have you heard someone say, “I chose Christ of my own free will”? In many Evangelical circles such a notion is so self-evident as to be proverbial. “Well, of course we must exercise our free will in order to be saved!” So goes the conventional wisdom. Christians sling the phrase free will about with the same ease Tom Brady throws footballs to Rob Gronkowski. But do most really have any idea what they mean when embracing the notions that stand behind these overwrought words? Free will is part of the stock parlance of Arminian theology, and those who employ it with a little sophistication mean something like that which is advanced by philosophers known as libertarianism. And no, we are not talking about Gary Johnson! On the other hand, Calvinists have usually disparaged the use of the term, avoiding it like the scourge of Black Death. But of course Arminianism and its many step-children believe that Calvinism puts the grip of death upon the freedom and responsibility of human beings. In their mind, the dreaded Calvinists would have all humans beings consigned to a vast kingdom of droids.

Is this true?

A modest renaissance of sorts is occurring with a little known brand of Calvinistic thought that, while opposed to the libertarian impulse of Arminianism, embraces a wholly different kind of free agency. It is known as compatibilism and serves as a useful way to frame what the Bible really says about this slippery notion of free will. This understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility was most clearly articulated in Jonathan’s Edwards’ magnificent tome Freedom of the Will. Edwards picked up where Luther and Calvin left off in their carefully crafted works on the subject. Of course, they all stood on the shoulders of Augustine as he tried to grapple with the Biblical text.

In what follows, I offer a humble ode to the thinking of these theological giants on the complex issues that surround the sovereignty of God in salvation and what takes places in sinners who are converted to Christ. In order to understand the dynamics of conversion, one must understand the often neglected doctrine of regeneration. I suggest that regeneration is not only ill-conceived in Arminian theology, it bears little consequence for how we make sense of the metamorphic miracle that transpires when a sinner enters the glorious kingdom of Christ. That supernatural transformation can only be explained by the Calvinistic interpretation of the relevant Biblical data. Furthermore, only Calvinistic compatibilism can make sense of the conundrums that have plagued our understanding of the tension that resides between absolute divine sovereignty on the one hand and human freedom and responsibility on the other.

Let us consider some definitional points first.

Libertarianism and Compatibilism

Libertarianism holds to two basic notions. First, it is adamant that our choices as human beings can in no way be determined by anything outside of the autonomous power of one’s individual will. No outside influences of any kind are allowed to have sufficient determining power so as to cause us to make one choice or another. Not even our inner deliberations, desires, motives, preferences, and what not, are sufficient causes for the choices we make. And of course, God himself cannot interfere with the human will so as to determine any choice we make; otherwise we can be neither free nor responsible in making those choices.

The second fundamental tenet of libertarianism is known as the freedom of contrary choice. This simply means that no matter what choice one makes, in order to be truly free, an alternative choice must be a genuine possibility and able to be made with equal ease. So for example, in order for a person to exercise a free and meaningful choice to believe upon Christ for salvation, he must be able equally to choose not to believe. Without this unhindered equanimity in choosing Arminians believe humans cannot be held responsible for their choices.

There are many serious problems for this notion of free will from a practical, philosophical and especially theological perspective, but I will not canvas those problems here. I direct people to my full length book on the matter, What About Free Will? What I wish to do instead is consider a positive case for an alternate view of free agency based upon a careful inquiry into the Biblical witness. The Bible embraces a view of human choosing that is consummate with compatibilism. A Biblically framed compatibilism holds that free and responsible choices are compatible with a God who also sovereignly determines what we will or will not choose. In other words, there is a dual explanation for every choice we make. God is the primary yet remote cause of our choosing while we humans are the secondary yet proximate cause of our choosing.

Now in case one is not inclined to think that God is meticulously sovereign in all things—well, what page of the Bible do you wish to be referred? I take this as one of the few truly undisputed suppositions in matters that lie before us.

The Three Compatibilist Mechanics of Human Choosing

Before I consider a theology of conversion it is important to understand the notion of choosing from the strictly human side of the compatibilist equation I have stated. This helps define how one’s choices are determined not simply from the divine perspective, but from the temporal, situational, and personal angle of what goes on in our internal faculties. Three important propositions are affirmed by a compatibilist view of human choosing.

First, we always choose what we want to choose. Nobody ever makes a choice they don’t want to make. This is axiomatic. But immediately some will raise a question here. Don’t we in fact sometimes choose things we don’t want to choose? Little Billy sometimes cleans his room even though he doesn’t like to. Incredibly, he can and does often do what he doesn’t want to do. Would we not agree there is some truth here? But doesn’t this show that libertarian notions of contrary choosing win the day? Not quite. When you examine the matter closer, you discover that there are determinative reasons why one make choices they otherwise would not. We never stand at a fork in the road and choose one direction or the other without some particular reason, even if those reasons are not particularly strong. This is not what libertarians and Arminians would have us believe, but I think it is easy to show they are mistaken. In little Billy’s case of the messy room, perhaps good ole dad stood behind him with threats of the woodshed; and so the properly fearful lad had a compelling reason to pick up those errant Legos. Billy wanted to clean his room because he didn’t want the alternative!

Let us put the matter another way. You can analyze every choice you make and you will discover that you always choose that which you perceive to be in your best interest at the moment of choosing. Go ahead! Think of something. We never choose things we think will harm us. Blaise Pascal said it well:

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end…. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Even people who choose suicide are deluded in thinking at that tragic moment that self-inflicted death is the best choice for them. They think it will benefit them. Of course it will not benefit them, but we are often deluded about what really benefits us. Sin, temptation, and deception hold hands very tightly.

This principle of self-interest is embedded in the second greatest commandment—to love your neighbor as yourself. In making this statement (and others like it), the Bible assumes that we have a natural love for ourselves—a natural interest in our own happiness and in making choices that we believe to be to our benefit. Of course, in principle there is nothing wrong with this so long as our choices truly are in our best interest. Only God can define the choices that are in our best interest. We do not retain that prerogative. What brings glory to him is always what brings the greatest benefit and subsequent happiness to ourselves. When we are deluded by what brings glory to ourselves (the true definition of selfishness) is when we are truly harmed by our choices.

Secondly, compatibilism says that all of our choices are determined by whatever our motives and desires are. Now there are many conditions, external and internal to ourselves, that can influence our motives and desires, but when all is said and done we never act against those motives—in particular, the strongest ones. If a contrary choice presents itself it will always have its own particular compelling reasons. Humans don’t do random. Even if we analyze the so-called willy-nilly things we do we find that there is some hidden dormant factor that sufficiently explains the direction we take. For the better part of the day we are barely conscious of the reasons that drive most of our choices. But let us reconsider Billy. The reason why he cleans his room when he otherwise hates to is because he is motivated by the threat of punishment if he doesn’t. Of course, maybe he is brave enough to test his dad’s resolve, but that would simply point to another set of sufficient reasons for doing so. Every boy now and then thinks he can get away with murder in a messy bedroom. Bravery can be a stubborn thing. The point is, you can analyze all your choices by what motivates you. The strongest motives that underpin the perception of what is in your best interest at the moment of choosing are what determines the choices you make.

But there is a third very crucial component here. And in this case, we are particularly concerned about our moral and spiritual choices. This is what the Bible is primarily concerned about and so this is where we must pay closest attention. What is it that motivates us to make moral and spiritual choices? Where do the motives for these choices come from? They proceed from our fundamental nature as human beings. In this regard, when the Bible uses the word “heart” it often has reference to our fundamental moral and spiritual disposition as human beings. Solomon says, “Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23). The heart here represents our core nature. It is our mission control central; and from the heart flow the course of decisions that we make about life.

The Fallen Nature of Humanity

But what is the condition of our heart? The Apostle Paul tells us that we have inherited a sin nature from Adam (Rom. 5:12-19). This means a fundamentally corrupted heart. Consider what the Bible says here: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). Paul instructs the Ephesians believers to “walk no longer just as the Gentiles [unbelievers] also walk, in the futility of their mind, being darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:17). Notice not only is the heart hardened here wherein our basic affections and desires lie; but our core nature includes our minds that operate in futility, emptiness, and uselessness in regard to spiritual things. This is the default mode of every human being who lives apart from the holy well-springs of the life of God.

Paul puts this another way when he says: “The mind set on the flesh [sinful nature] is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7). The sin nature is hostile toward God and the things of God. It does not want to obey God’s moral imperatives in a way that brings him glory alone (Rom. 3:23). Thus we cannot please God in our natural sinful state. In fact, Paul says we are not even able to do so. As sinners infected by the curse of Adam we are unwilling and unable to do anything that pleases and glorifies God. All of our best attempts at goodness are like filthy rags (Isa. 64:6), tainted by every dark hue of sin our hearts can devise.

Furthermore, there is nothing we can do to alter our desperate condition. The prophet says, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then you also can do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer. 13:23). Jesus says the same thing employing some other color metaphors:

Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart. The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil. (Matt. 12:33-35)

Jesus uses the idea of a tree to represent the basic nature of human beings. There are either good trees or bad trees. There are either trees that are poisonous and produce poisonous fruit or there are good trees that produce good, nutritious fruit. In order for a tree to produce good fruit it must be made good. It must undergo a radical transformation. The heart is either full of good treasure or evil treasure. Jesus is summarizing what a Biblically oriented compatibilist view of the human will tells us. If you have a corrupted nature then you will only have corrupted desires and motives which produce corrupted choices.

So the question of crucial importance here is this: what must happen in order for the tree to be made good?

The Need for Regenerated Natures

We have a need for regenerated natures. In Ephesians 2, Paul describes very graphically the transformation that takes place in the sinner who is changed into a Christ follower. He begins by depicting the pre-Christian state of his readers.

And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:1-3)

The unregenerate are dead in trespasses and sins. Spiritual silence—stone cold death. They are dominated by the dark designs of the flesh—the sin nature we inherited from Adam and in which we freely and gladly indulged. Yes, Satan, the prince of the power of the air, has a powerful grip upon sinners, but every sinner willingly (freely we might add) follows after the devil’s sinister plots of provoking humans unto disobedience to the moral will of God. They can do no other despite the protests of Arminians who espouse an illusory freedom of contrary choice. What we might regard as average people who go about the normal routines of life have no inclination to spiritual things, rather they are by nature children of divine wrath. All people are born children of wrath and immediately enslaved to their sin nature (Psa. 51:5; John 8:34). Spiritual stillbirths litter the whole landscape.

With this framework of human depravity in mind, consider the following question. Could any person repent of their sin and believe upon Christ while being enslaved to this condition? Many Arminians like to think that our condition as unbelievers is not spiritual death but spiritual weakness or sickness. Within our sickly condition we still have a spark of spirituality in our souls. We can still reach out to Christ for salvation, however feebly. To be sure, divine grace is necessary in this scheme, but it is not sufficient for salvation to obtain. That rests with the libertarian free will of man.

But this scenario simply does not comport with the picture of our human depravity. The desperate catalog of our condition in Romans 3:9-18 says otherwise. No one who lives under the curse of sin is good or righteous (vss. 10, 12). No one has a capacity or a set of motives whereby they seek the true God (vs. 11). They have all turned from him to paths of self-destruction (vss. 12, 16). The sinner has no regard for a holy God (vs. 18). Such persons are in no condition to repent of their sins or to exercise faith in Christ. We might indeed say they are free, but they are clearly in bondage at the same time. They freely choose according to the corrupt desires of their corrupted nature, and can do no other. They cannot defy their nature, but it is important to note that they don’t want to defy their nature. This is why freedom of the will must be defined no more broadly than choosing according to one’s most compelling desires. The unbeliever has no desires for anything other than what their sinful nature dictates.

Think about the implications of this for a moment. Why is it that some people believe the gospel and others do not? Would we not say that faith and repentance are morally good and God glorifying actions? In fact, would we not say that these actions represent the climax of morally good choices? What could be better than falling upon your knees before a holy God in brokenness and utter contrition; of humbly acknowledging the depth of your depravity; and of seeing that faith in the wondrous Christ, who offered his life as an atoning sacrifice to pardon such depravity, is your only hope? Likewise, would we not say that to hear the clear and powerful message of the gospel and of the mercy of God and of forgiveness of sins and then to turn away from this message in unbelief—is this not tantamount to the most egregious of sins? But what causes a person to repent of their sins and trust Christ for pardon? Is it something that proceeds from one’s own good nature? Of course not, unless we want to deny the inherent sinfulness of human beings as the Bible so clearly describes it. Bad trees don’t produce good fruit. Something has to change. Something radical has to take place; something that results in the virtuous actions of repenting of sin and entrusting one’s desires and affections to a glorious Savior. A radical transformation of our nature must take place before such choices can be made. This leads us to the lynchpin of conversion, the doctrine of regeneration.

The Doctrine of Regeneration and Conversion

This is precisely what Paul has in mind as we further consider his flow of thought in Ephesians 2. After describing the pre-Christian state of human beings (vss. 1-3), he goes on to outline this glorious transformation of regeneration:

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Eph. 2:4-7)

The believer in Christ went from death to life. How did this happen? Was it because sinners had the good sense to take their dead souls and infuse new life into them? No. People couldn’t do that even if they had the desire to do so. It was the sovereign God’s mercy toward vile dead sinners. It was the magnificence of his love for his elect even as they remained dead in sin, in an unperturbed state of constantly turning away from God, despising his moral imperatives, walking in their own way, and indulging in the corrupted desires of their hearts. God in his rich mercy and great love arrested appointed sinners in their tracks and he infused new life in them.

Paul says elsewhere: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5). Peter rejoices with similar words: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Pet. 1:3). We did not cause ourselves to be born again, God did. No one causes their own birth. And yet without this new life we could not have the living hope Peter and Paul speak of. More importantly, for our purposes, we could not choose to repent and believe.

Remember our basic thesis about the mechanics of choosing. We always choose what we want to choose, and what we want to choose is what we believe to be in our best interest. Furthermore, the moral and spiritual actions we want to choose are rooted in our most compelling desires and motives. But these are inextricably tied to our basic spiritual nature. If we have a spiritually dead, intractable corrupted nature, then we will only have corrupted motives that produce corrupted choices. In order to make good, God pleasing, God glorifying moral and spiritual choices we must have a new nature implanted within us. As God tells Israel through the prophet Ezekiel:

Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. (Ezek. 36:25-27)

God does this out the grace that flows from his own sovereign freedom. To be sure, we repent of our sin and trust Christ as an act of our own choice, freely and willingly. But we would never do so unless a change in our natures took place. That is something we cannot do. We are wholly passive as God replaces our heart of stone with a soft, pliable, pure, good heart that then suddenly develops desires for salvation it never had before. Our renewed heart then actively chooses salvation in response to those new desires; free of divine coercion, unhindered in any way, made completely voluntarily and yet in full concert with a sovereign God who made his choice first.

And this returns us to our compatibilistic equation. God is the primary cause of our actions, no less in the normal routines of life, but particularly as it concerns our spiritual transformation. But this does not somehow dismantle our responsible and freely made choices. Divine sovereignty is never to be equated to fatalism—a distinctly pagan notion. We are not lifeless marionettes dangling from the Master Puppeteer’s strings. We are responsible creatures who participate in his story in a necessary nexus of cause and effect. Regeneration is the supernatural side of the coin that initiates the work of salvation—the cause. Conversion is the effect—the natural and human side of the coin whereby we respond in faith and repentance to the effectual calling of the Spirit (John 6:44; 2 Tim. 1:9). Thus, the saving grace inherent in regeneration must precede faith.

In regeneration our wills are passive. In conversion they are active. Put another way, regeneration is the primary cause of our coming to Christ. Conversion is the secondary cause. God’s work of transforming our natures and infusing them with new life is largely silent and imperceptible, whereas our response in conversion is obviously tangible and self-conscious. The priority of regeneration is the only way to make sense of the gracious nature of salvation. It is the only way that prevents us from boasting and taking credit where no credit is due (1 Cor. 1:26-31). The honor and the praise are reserved for God alone. But what a privilege he has afforded us in having this strangely unique, personal, and beautiful part in the wonder of salvation. It is pure joy to be an actor in the divine Playwright’s grand story of redemption.

There are many questions this understanding of divine sovereignty and human responsibility raises—maters that go far beyond the conversion of sinners. This dual matrix for explaining divine and human action pervades the whole of Scripture and touches upon matters like sanctification, prayer, evangelism, the problem of evil, and more. I encourage you to investigate these issues more fully in my book What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty.

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My book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty is to be released on February 29. It was 2 years ago that I began working on this book and the day of its publication is finally here! You can order the book from Amazon here. The book also has its own website here. If you sign up on the website you will begin receiving a number of resources connected to the book that are not available elsewhere.

Book Review: The End of Christianity

End of Xianity

William A. Dembski is a well-known proponent of Intelligent Design. But in his book The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World he makes an interesting foray into theology, specifically the question of theodicy. Dembski holds to the standard age of the cosmos as accepted by the scientific consensus. Nonetheless, he also holds to the divine inspiration of the Bible and thus he seems to accept the literal existence of Adam and Eve as the parents of modern humanity. He also maintains the orthodox Christian belief in the Fall of mankind in the Garden of Eden which he also seems to accept as a literal event in a literal place in the Genesis account of origins. But like other old earth creationists, Dembski holds that animal death, parasitism, disease, and natural calamities like tsunamis and earthquakes occurred prior to the Fall. These affirmations set up the dilemma Dembski seeks to solve in this book. Dembski believes that the Fall of Adam and Eve, which constitutes a collapse into moral evil, is responsible for natural evil (i.e. death, disease, calamity, etc.). Again, this is standard Christian orthodoxy. But since Dembski believes that natural evil existed prior to the Fall then how can he hold that the Fall into moral evil is responsible for pre-existing natural evil? This is the problem he seeks to solve (46).

Dembski proposes some novel moves to make the case that moral evil is the cause of pre-existing natural evil. He sees the effects of the Fall acting retroactively. In other words, the effect occurred before the cause (50). He points to the retroactive saving work of the cross to prove his point (50, 110). Jesus’ death was not only an atonement for sins that occurred after the fact, but also before the fact. This event in time and space transcends time and space and has a retroactive saving impact upon Old Testament saints (Rom. 3:25-26). Both historical situations are possible due to the transtemporal nature of God who is unbound by time (50). Because God is unbound by time He can rewrite the story of history “while it is being performed [like a play] and even change the entire backdrop against which it is performed—that includes past, present, and future. An infinite God who transcends time can redeem a botched performance by acting in creation so that those effects, though attributable to the Fall, come temporally prior to it. In other words, the effects of the Fall can be retroactive” (110).

Dembski is critical of young earth creationism even though he acknowledges that this has been the position of the Church historically (55). He asks, “Within young-earth creationism, all divine compensatory action to redress humanity’s sin occurs forward in time from the Fall. But why should God be limited in that way?” (111). His solution to the problem is a self-conscious attempt “to preserve theological orthodoxy regarding the Fall and scientific orthodoxy regarding [modern] geology [among other indicators of an old earth]” (111).

In making his case, Dembski argues that natural evil is not morally significant prior to the Fall. It only takes on moral significance once humans experience it (78-81). In this regard, he holds that hominids likely existed prior to Adam and Eve who represent the first true ‘humans’ (i.e. homo sapiens). With their existence, God’s breathing life into them (Gen. 2:7) is not a supernatural act of imparting physical life into the couple, but rather the life of God’s image (154-55). In other words, this event signifies the moment God created human beings which are primarily marked by giving them “cognitive and moral capacities” to match His own intelligent moral identity (158). After such moral creatures come into existence pre-existing natural evil suddenly takes on moral significance.  Presumably hominids had no moral sense and therefore could not experience the discomforting existential realities of pain and suffering that come with a less than perfect world.

Divine transtemporality is important in Dembski’s view that God acts retroactively in history. He appeals to Newcomb’s Paradox for scientific support of this view (128-29). In this respect, “divine omniscience [i.e. specifically foreknowledge] and omnipresence means that God is able to anticipate events and human actions by acting in response before they occur” (131). Retroactive answers to prayer seem to confirm this belief. He explains further:

Because God knows the future and can act on this knowledge by anticipating events and directing their course, divine action follows not a causal-temporal logic but an intentional-semantic logic. This logic treats time as nonlinear… and sees God as acting in the world to accomplish his purposes in accord with the meaning or significance of events. The causal-temporal logic underlying the physical world and the intentional-semantic logic underlying divine action are not at odds—they neither contradict nor are reducible to each other. Notwithstanding, the intentional-semantic logic is ontologically prior to the causal-temporal logic. God has always existed and acted on the basis of intentions and meanings. The world, by contrast, has a beginning and an end. It operates according to the causal-temporal logic because God, in an intentional act, created it that way. Divine action is therefore a more fundamental mode of causation than physical causation (132).

Dembski furthers this line of thinking by appealing to two uses of words for time in the Greek. The term chronos refers to chronological time as in a succession of events in a linear cause-effect relationship (125). This corresponds to his notion of causal-temporal logic in the physical world (142). Whereas, the term kairos is the “ordering of reality according to divine purposes” (126). It speaks of that which is eternal and invisible (i.e. immaterial, metaphysical reality) and relates to the intentional-semantic logic of God’s perspective (142). Dembski’s appeal to lexical sources for these distinctions is not very convincing. It is doubtful kairos has this sort of specific meaning in any Biblical passage.

Dembski employs these distinctions to the creation account of Genesis 1-3. The predominate time markers in the account are not speaking of literal time (as in young-earth or other old-earth accounts – i.e. chronos) nor are they metaphorical literary devices, rather they speak of “episodes” in God’s mind when he intended to create (142). In order to make this case, Dembski has to really generalize. He does not explain such specific time markers like “evening-morning” or the use of ordinals to describe the “days” (i.e. Hebrew yom) of creation. How this language fits the very specific definition he gives to kairos is left unexplored.

What shall we make of Dembski’s thesis? I believe it is unconvincing for several reasons. First of all, Dembski’s affirmation of pre-existing natural evil resulting retroactively from the Fall means that Adam and Eve never really experienced the “good” creation God initially made. In fact, it seems in Dembski’s scheme there never was a “good” creation to begin with. Furthermore, the first humans had to suffer the consequences of their sin prior to committing that sin. Dembski anticipates both these problems.

With regard to the first, he says God creates a kind of double creation. “God, in Genesis 1, creates a perfect world…. As a conceptual act by a perfect God, it cannot help but be perfect.” This is the first creation. “In Genesis 2-3, we find the ‘second creation,’ which starts off great but quickly ends in ruin” (111). Dembski does not elaborate, but it seems that his notion of the initial creation as perfect is only a conceptual reality corresponding to his motif of God’s intentional-semantic logic. God conceptualizes a perfect world in his mind, but the causal-temporal reality is something less than ideal. This is like some bad Platonic dream, where perfect concepts exist in the mind of God, but reality fails to match up to those ideal notions.

When it comes to the problem of Adam and Eve suffering the consequences for their sin retroactively, Dembski supposes that the Garden of Eden was a specially protected environment untouched by the natural evil that existed elsewhere in the world. Because Adam and Eve’s existence was confined to the garden, they never actually experienced animal violence, death, disease, natural calamities and so forth. The traditional view of the creation account is that the whole world was created in a state of perfection. But Dembski asks “why God would need to plant a garden in a perfect world untouched by natural evil? In a perfect world [such as young-earth creationists posit], wouldn’t the whole world be a garden? And why, once humans sin, must they be expelled from this garden and live outside it, where natural evil is present?” (151). As long as the couple stays in this “island of sanity” (152) they are untouched by natural evil. Once God expels them from the garden they experience what the rest of the world has already experienced for millions of years (151).

This is highly speculative at best. There is nothing explicit or even implicit in the Genesis account to suggest Eden was some haven in the midst of an otherwise evil world of death, violence and calamity. Over and over we are told the whole of the creation was good. This is not a conceptual reality in God’s mind, his “good” intention, but a physical reality. Nor is God’s “good” intention confined strictly to Eden (153). His good intention extends to the whole of the cosmos, not a tiny fraction of it. Dembski must engage in extreme exegetical and theological gymnastics in order to affirm that the Evolutionary paradigm that rules science cannot abide by a such a perfect primordial world. Furthermore, what about the serpent in this scenario? How did he penetrate this island of sanity undetected by God? Or did God’s permissive will allow him to enter? If so what was the purpose? That is the bigger question of theodicy and Dembski never attempts to ask or answer it.

Dembski’s reconstruction of the creation account undermines the whole storyline of Scripture traditionally outlined as Creation-Fall-Redemption. Since his conception of the whole of creation was already cursed from the beginning, it calls into question the goodness of God. Confining the good creation to a tiny spec in the cosmos called Eden will not do. Romans 8:18-22 will not admit of any such reductionism.  The whole of creation was created good and then temporally subjected to futility according to the most natural reading of Genesis 1-3. In other words, there was no strange kairotic (to quoin a Dembski-like term) transtemporal time tricks going on here. This is not to deny God’s transtemporality. It is simply to say that there is no exegetical or theological warrant to employ it with regard to the creation and fall of man. Furthermore, if the creation was not wholly good then Christ’s redemption work whereby he restores “all things” (Acts 3:21) loses its meaning. There is no good to restore. It was largely corrupted from the get-go.

Dembski’s scheme wreaks a great deal of havoc upon the storyline of Scripture in his effort to save the Bible from what he regards as the more sure interpretation of science. Dembski is willing to force a dubious interpretation upon Scripture because its plain meaning cannot stand up to the infallible pronouncements of the scientific establishment. This is not disparaging the scientific enterprise. The Christian worldview is not anti-scientific. Rather it questions the many presuppositions that have entered the debate on origins when that matter was highjacked by an avowed anti-supernatural agenda. Modern science in the guise of Darwinian evolution (in its various manifestations) has an axe to grind with Biblical Revelation and too many believers have been duped by its unquestioned pronouncements about the natural world and its origins.  The fact remains, no matter how much energy is poured into theorizing about origins, science has no absolute way to make pronouncements about it. We simply cannot reconstruct it. The only way to know how it all came bout is to have a reliable witness. The Genesis record, in the plainest of terms, gives just such a witness—from the perspective of the Creator Himself. That record never came under question until the powerful priests of Darwinism pronounced it null and void.

Book Review: The Problem of Evil

Evans_PoE

Trying to reconcile the notion of a good and powerful God with the existence of evil has been a perennial problem that Christian theism has had to face from its inception. The matter has been taken up in earnest over the last several decades. One contribution is The Problem of Evil by Jeremy A. Evans, an associate professor of philosophy at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Evans is part of the thriving resurgence of Christian philosophers that have proliferated the field of philosophy for some time now.

Serious Christian responses to the problem of evil are dominated by philosophers and I find this unfortunate. That is not because I think philosophical responses are problematic, rather they are inadequate. In other words, I believe they are necessary but not sufficient.  Comprehensive theological, biblical and exegetical responses are wanting. It seems that a great deal of those who engage in systematic and biblical theology have conceded the problem to the philosophers and this is not helpful to the church at large.

Having said that, Evans’ contribution is a worthy effort, but overall, it is not entirely satisfying. First of all, because of the philosophical approach, this volume will be tough sledding for most readers. Although he does not get bogged down with standard scholarly philosophic/ logic notation and complicated syllogisms, there is enough philosophical language to keep non-specialists on their toes. The bottom line—only those who are conversant in at least moderate levels of philosophical discourse will be able to benefit from Evans’ work. However, there are many places where his argumentation is clear and pithy, making those sections more accessible and profitable for us neophytes.

Evans employs the Free Will Defense (FWD) as his basic approach to the problem. This is no surprise. Ever since the venerable dean of Christian philosophy, Alvin Plantinga, applied this approach to the problem of evil (especially in God, Freedom and Evil), virtually every Christian philosopher has followed suit. Plantinga presented a well-argued response to philosophers like J. L. Mackie and convinced many philosophers, both believing and unbelieving, that he provided an adequate ‘defense’ (not a thoroughgoing theodicy) to the problem of God and evil. Although libertarian free will has had its able defenders in secular accounts, I do not believe Christian philosophers have made a credible defense of it on Christian grounds. Perhaps more to the point, they have not made credible exegetical and theological arguments from the data of Scripture itself. In the case of Evans (and many others) he has not sought to defend the basic libertarian premises in his argumentation. Libertarian free will is assumed to be true without defense.

And this is precisely the point at which accounts like Evans falls short. Reformed/ Calvinistic theologians have provided far better exegetical and theological defenses of divine determinism over and against libertarian freedom from the data of Scripture that seems largely ignored in Christian philosophy. Furthermore, compatibilistic accounts of human freedom and responsibility accord more with the Scriptural data (see my forthcoming book, What About Free Will? Reconciling Our Choices with God’s Sovereignty – P&R Publishing, February 2016). I think Christian philosophy has become so myopic and specialized that scholars in the field are not conversant with serious theological materials that contribute to a more faithful theodicy.  Furthermore, most works of Christian philosophy simply are not conversant with Scripture. Scripture is not the starting point for their apologetic. This doesn’t mean most Christian philosophers don’t seek to defend Scriptural doctrines. Scriptural concepts are retained in general, however, they are defended by appeal to rationalism first and revelation second. This is not always the case. Evans often makes appeal to Scripture and I applaud him for doing so. But it is often done in a cursory way. In other words, theology and Biblical exegesis plays the handmaiden to philosophy instead of the other way around. This is what leads to the wholesale acceptance of concepts like libertarianism that has scant support from the actual data of Scripture even though it serves to solve the dilemmas of theodicy much more conveniently.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is because Reformed theology has historically been regarded as the harder theology to adopt an acceptable theodicy, even among Reformed theologians themselves. If libertarianism were true, it would solve the problem with greater ease and with greater acceptability among non-believing critics of the Christian faith. I think that is why it has been a more appealing avenue for Christian philosophers and Arminians in general. The problem is the data of Scripture gives unequivocal support for meticulous divine determinism on the one hand; and on the other, its account of human and divine responsibility does not in any way cohere with libertarian accounts of freedom.

Christian philosophers love to quote Augustine, Aquinas and the scholastics along with Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, et. al. but have little room for Calvin, Luther, Owen, Turretin, Bavinck and Berkouwer. Historians have long acknowledged the genius of Jonathan Edwards, but few philosophers have grappled with his magisterial Freedom of the Will where he ably defends a nascent brand of compatibilism (the idea that human freedom and responsibility is compatible with divine determinism—that is, meticulous providence). Perhaps that is because he was a theologian first and a philosopher second. Ignoring Edwards has become unfortunate.

Evans acknowledges that the real problem of evil is not the logical problem. Plantinga has solved this with the FWD and others who hold to divine determinism have shown the logical problem is not a problem at all (e.g. John Feinberg, Paul Helm, James Speigel, Thaddeus Williams). The notion of gratuitous evil is where the problem largely centers—and let’s be honest, this is where it has always centered. Why does God allow evils that have no apparent reason or purpose? Evans seeks to solve the problem first of all by putting theism in perspective. He argues that there are many other avenues of apologetic value that have sought to vindicate the existence of God. In this regard, he shows his hand as an evidentialist, the most common form of apologetics among Christian philosophers. I favor presuppositionalism.

Evans then provides 2 syllogisms:

1. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2. Gratuitous evils do exist (or, there is at least one gratuitous evil)

3. Therefore, God does not exist.

1’. If God exists, then gratuitous evils do not exist.

2’. It is very likely that God exists.

3’. Therefore, it is very likely there are no gratuitous evils. (28)

Evans obviously favors the second of these two arguments. Both arguments are valid, but which is more likely to be sound? The first argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence that gratuitous evils exist (premise 2). The second argument hinges on whether there is sufficient evidence for God’s existence (premise 2’). Whichever of these 2 premises has better support will determine which argument is more sound. Evans goes on to argue that God always has some good for evils we don’t understand. The fact that God does not reveal what those reasons are is no argument against their existence. There is of course nothing wrong with this argument. The problem is it does not have much persuasive power. When a mother holds the lifeless body of her 5 year son who caught a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting, saying God has an unknown reason for his death is not terribly helpful though perhaps true. This is where our efforts to construct a theodicy have to be far more pastoral than cold syllogisms.

One of the more fruitful arguments Evans provides is a sort of modified version of John Hick’s soul-making theodicy. He speaks of the defeat of evil. At this stage Evans’ theodicy is two-pronged. First, the FWD responds to the “why” of evil. Secondly, since evil cannot be prevented, there must exist a reasonable response to mitigate its unseemly characteristics. This is the “what now” response (59). It requires the defeat of evil—“To remove its hold on the content of our experience” (59). We must necessarily partner with God in the defeat of evil, because we can’t do it on our own. Trying to doing things on our own is what brought evil into existence in the first place (59). This defeat of evil has special value for the Christian. “The reason that conversion is the summum bonum of soul making [adopting Hick at this point] is that in the act of conversion the condition of the heart is restored” (49). I think Evans is on to some very provocative ideas here, unfortunately I do not believe he develops them enough. Furthermore, they are hampered by his endorsement of libertarianism. A more robust Biblical theology would tease these ideas out, but that moves beyond his philosophical focus.

Evans’ section on hell may be his best contribution to the problem of evil. The question revolves around the unfairness of the eternal nature of hell. Why would God punish finite sins with infinite punishment? Typically, Christians argue that those in hell never stop sinning and thus they ever incur fresh waves of never-ending judgment. Evans thinks this argument is weak. He says, “The real problem attending the denizens of hell is that they have a disposition that is bent against God” (100). “Sin deforms our character” (100) such that a person reaches a point at which he becomes perverse in his opposition to God. Evans highlights the fact that the word “transgression” speaks of a specific sin in Scripture that highlights “intentional defiance against God” (100). Evans cites Isaiah 59:12-13 for this (101). “Persistence in transgression… ultimately yields a heart hardened against God” (101). “Scripture indicates… the effects of transgression on a person is that as we persist in these choices we forge a character toward a particular destiny, the culmination of which (in the negative sense) is a completely hardened heart against God” (101). This corresponds to Pharaoh’s hardened heart (though I disagree with Evans’ libertarian interpretation of the account in Exodus) and Romans 1 in which God “gives people over” to greater indulgence in sin. Evans argues that this sort of abandonment and hardening of hearts takes place prior to the sinner’s entrance to hell. “Hell is not what hardens a person; instead, hell is a place for hardened persons” (102). He further argues that although hell is sheer horror and why would anyone want to remain there, that is not really the right question. The alternative is to embrace God and acknowledge his Lordship and repent of sin and that is decidedly more repugnant to the “denizens of hell” than the horror it holds for them (102).

Evans also has a profitable discussion of a divine command theory of ethics, which states that an action’s moral value is determined by God. This is commonly met with the Euthyphro objection: “Is something good because God loves it, or does God love something because it is good?” (136). The Euthyphro objection presupposes that attributes of God exist independently of him. Evans answers this with an exposition of the doctrine of divine simplicity which indicates that God cannot be divided into parts as if attributes are added to his person. The reality is they exist as essential to his very being. Evans contends that the notion “God is good” should be “more precisely phrased ‘God is identical with goodness’ (quoting Norman Kretzmann). To be more specific, “God is goodness made real, not just the property of goodness. He is the reality of goodness” (180). Thus the very nature of God is the ground of ethics and of human moral obligation.

Evans moves on the application of divine command theory to one of the more thorny problems in this regard: Genesis 22 and the command to Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Evans makes a remarkable statement. “Every moral command imposed by God has as its root the same concern, namely whether one holds anything in a higher priority than one’s relationship to God” (193). I love this statement. Basically, Evans argues that God’s intention with commanding Abraham to sacrifice Isaac was not to bring about a particular state of affairs (i.e., in this case, the death of Isaac), rather his intention is “to bring about obedience with regard to the content of what is commanded” (194). The intention of God is the same in every command he gives to human beings. “What is this intention? To obey the known commands of God and have no other perceived good to be held in higher esteem than him” (195). Evans quotes Hebrews 11:17-19 to vindicate his argument  that God never intended the death of Isaac; although Genesis 22:12 confirms this analysis when God tells Abraham that he knows that he “fear[s] God” above the son he loves.

All this discussion sets up Evans’ attempt to exonerate God from culpability for evil. Although Evans endorses libertarian freedom for humans, he denies it to God since God maintains perfection in his attributes and therefore cannot act contrary to his nature. He appears to affirm a higher theology of providence that Arminianism, but one that falls short of the divine determinism embraced by Calvinists. Here is where interaction with compatibilism would have been fruitful for Evans, but alas, no mention of it. He sounds awfully close to speaking like a compatibilist but staunchly maintains his libertarianism. He quotes Hugh McCann to show that God’s providence is like that of an author to a novel. God creates and determines the circumstances in which human choices play out, yet somehow those choices remain independent of any causal connection to God. This seems rather odd in light of an analogy used more often by Calvinists than Arminians (I am thinking specifically of Wayne Grudem and John Frame). Unfortunately Evans does not tease out some of the implications of his model of providence which would have been helpful.

All-in-all Evans’ book has some useful material for evaluating the problem of evil. He develops some fruitful avenues of thought in seeking to solve at least some of its problems. I believe the work is marred in two ways. First, it embraces libertarianism as a given. If libertarianism is shown to be insufficient as an explanation, then the basic Free Will Defense Evans (and most Christian philosophers) employs fails significantly.  Secondly, he does not employ the solid work of standard Christian Systematic and Biblical theologies. In particular, I believe Reformed theology provides the most faithful and rigorous exposition of Christian doctrine. The work of John Frame, John Feinberg, D. A. Carson, and Paul Helm provides some important perspectives that remain untapped among Christian philosophers with regard to the problem of evil. Feinberg and Helm, in particular, are quite conversant with philosophical accounts of the problem of evil; and Feinberg’s massive tome, The Many Faces of Evil, is rarely consulted in other works of theodicy. This is unfortunate. By all means, read Evans, but read widely from these others as well.

Book Review: The Baptist Story

Baptist Story

The Baptist Story: From English Sect to Global Movement by Anthony L. Chute, Nathan A. Finn and Michael A. G. Haykin is a newly published textbook on Baptist history that should prove to be useful for college and seminary students as well as those interested in church history. All three authors are accomplished writers and historians, but especially Michael Haykin who is very prolific in drawing out little known treasures from church history (especially 17th and 18th century Baptist figures) through the publication of multiple volumes. Haykin is not only one of the best Evangelical historians doing work today, but he is also quite conversant in theology. He has been able to show how theology and church history intersect in important ways.

The authors walk through the Baptist story from its beginnings. Baptists had their origins not in the Anabaptist movement of the 16th century Reformation, but a century later as one of the separatist movements who broke away from the Church of England in the early 17th century. Although there are parallels, Anabaptists and Baptists have distinct origins and beliefs beyond the common acceptance of believer’s (credo) baptism. The English Separatists became known as Puritans and one of these Puritans was John Smyth. He fled England to the Netherlands as did many Separatists seeking to escape persecution. Initially he was joined to the group of believers who eventually made their way to America in the Mayflower. The two groups separated over views on church polity. Smyth was initially a Calvinist but then became convinced of Arminianism during the Remonstrance controversy in the Netherlands at the time.

A split among Smyth’s followers resulted in many joining Thomas Helwys in a North London church. They became known as the General Baptists. The name stems from the fact that they believed in the Arminian doctrine that Christ’s death provided a general atonement for all people. Shortly thereafter, a new movement known as the Particular Baptists arose from 3 pastors of another London church. These became more prevalent in the early days of the Baptist movement. Their name derives from the fact that they held to the Calvinist doctrine that Christ’s death provided a particular atonement only for those elected to salvation by God. While early Baptists baptized by affusion (pouring water over the head), these were the first to baptize by immersion. The Particular Baptists produced the The First London Confession of Faith in 1644 and then the influential Second London Confession in 1658.

From these modest beginnings, Baptists began to emerge as a major force in Protestant Christianity. We learn of Roger Williams, the first influential Baptist in America who fought early battles for religious freedom in the colonies for struggling Baptists even as fellow Baptists in England began to thrive. But soon, new persecution arose in England with those known as Dissenters or Nonconformists, again with regard to resisting the strong arm of the Church of England. Among this Puritan stock were famous Baptists like John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress. Finally, the Act of Toleration in 1689 brought religious freedom for English Baptists.

The 18th and 19th centuries brought Baptists to the very forefront of Evangelical revivals and reforms which has made them perhaps the most formidable group of Protestant denominations ever since. The authors tell us the stories of men like the pastor-theologian John Gill, Isaac Backus, Shubal Stearns, Abraham Booth, Andrew Fuller, the father of modern missions William Carey, Adoniram Judson, Francis Wayland and the greater London preacher Charles Spurgeon. We see how Baptists were instrumental in the spread of the First and Second Great Awakenings, the establishment of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, the abolishment of slavery in the US South, the temperance movement and other social reforms. We learn of the Northern and Southern Baptists, the Free Will, Primitive, Landmark and Independent Baptists and the rise of educational institutions like Brown University and Southern Seminary. Along the way, the authors weave these individual stories with those of other Baptists institutions and movements, doctrinal and ecclesiastical disputes as well as how Baptists interfaced the culture at large and other Christian denominations.

Important Baptists and institutions of the 20th century are well covered. We learn of George Truett, B. H. Carroll, E. Y. Mullins, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Carl F. H. Henry along with Baptist involvement in the Fundamentalist controversy of the 20’s and 30’s, the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s, and the Conservative Resurgence of the 80’s and 90’s in the Southern Baptist Convention led by men like W. A. Criswell, Paige Patterson, and Adrian Rogers. The last chapters bring us to the contemporary scene. It focuses on Baptist figures like Chuck Colson, Rick Warren, and John Piper. We see the global impact of Baptists, the Calvinist renewal and the response to renewed threats to religious liberty.  The last chapter seeks to identify what has historically distinguished Baptists from other Christian denominations in their beliefs. It is very helpful in that regard.

This textbook is brief at only 356 pages, but it does an excellent job of painting Baptist history with broad strokes while also focusing on a number of lesser known stories and figures of interest. It balances the two very well. The prose is very readable and enjoyable. This is not dry history. One may argue that some figures, movements, issues and institutions are given short-shrift, but that is to be expected in a volume of this size and purpose. It is a survey. The book contains numerous helpful photos and side-bars relating Baptists in their own words. One disappointment is that I found the indexes to be incomplete. A number of names and subjects that occur in the text are not mentioned in the indexes. This will make it harder to search and that is unfortunate. But all-in-all this is an excellent textbook for examining Baptist history. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: The Blessing of God

Blessing of God

Michael D. McMullen is an associate professor of church history at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He completed doctoral work on Jonathan Edwards at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland as well as Yale University. He has done us a great service by publishing in this volume, some 22 previously unpublished sermons of the great pastor and theologian of the colonial era. McMullen provides a short introduction to Edwards and the painstaking process he undertook to transcribe these sermons for publication from the original manuscripts held in the well-known Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. Even with the massive project by Yale University Press to publish the works of Edwards, many of his sermons have not made it into these volumes which now stand at 26 (73 for the online edition). Thankfully, the Works of Jonathan Edwards Online is available on the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University website making the purchase of printed editions unnecessary for those who wish to read Edwards.

Each of the 22 sermons in the present volume is given a brief introduction by McMullen where he discusses the original date of the sermon, its occasion, contents and basic themes. This is very helpful in orienting the reader. McMullen did not select the sermons based on any specific criteria. He simply wanted to provide a broad range of sermons which are from both the Old and New Testaments, long and brief sermons as well as those which are more doctrinal versus evangelistic in flavor. The sermons themselves are simply divided, following standard Puritan traditions. Edwards opens with a brief introduction then moves to the ‘Doctrine’ portion of the sermon with several points. He then concludes with an ‘Application’ section with its several points to press the truths upon the hearts and minds of the listener. The Biblical text for each sermon is as follows: Chapter 1: Genesis 32:26-29; Chapter 2: Deuteronomy 32:29; Chapter 3: Job 19:25; Chapter 4: Psalm 115:1; Chapter 5: Psalm 119:60; Chapter 6: Psalm 139:7-10; Chapter 7: Proverbs 28:13; Chapter 8: Ecclesiastes 7:1; Chapter 9: Song of Solomon 1:3; Chapter 10: Ezekiel 7:16 (Sermon 1); Chapter 11: Ezekiel 7:16 (Sermon 2); Chapter 12: Hosea 13:9; Chapter 13: Matthew 7:13-14; Chapter 14: Matthew 13:47-50; Chapter 15: Mark 16:15-16; Chapter 16: Acts 19:19; Chapter 17: Romans 5:7-8; Chapter 18: 1 Thessalonians 5:23; Chapter 19: 1 Timothy 2:5; Chapter 20: James 1:13; Chapter 21: James 1:17; Chapter 22: Revelation 3:20.

In order to give you the flavor of some of the sermons, here are a few examples. Chapter 4 contains a sermon on Psalm 115:1: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory.” Edwards writes that “it is the temper and disposition of a truly godly man to delight in exalting God.” Such “see God reigning on the throne of his glory, exalted on high. They love to have him do whatever is his will and pleasure in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth. They care that he should do just what he pleases. They rejoice in it that God is the governor of the world. It is a happy and joyful consideration to them that God reigneth” (74). If Edwards was anything, he was most certainly theocentric his theology and preaching. The glory of God was ever foremost in his mind.

Chapter 6 contains a sermon on Psalm 139:7-10 entitled, “That God is Everywhere Present.”  In speaking to the unconverted, Edwards says, “It is an awakening and even an amazing consideration to think that they live and move in that God who is angry with them every moment. He is not an enemy at a distance from them, nor is he only near to them, but he is in them and they in him. He is in them and through them wherever they go, and yet they provoke him to anger… He possesses every part of their body which they use as instruments of sin against him” (115). Edwards’ strong view of the doctrine of concurrence is very evident here.

Chapter 7 contains a sermon from Proverbs 28:13 about God’s forgiveness of those who confess and forsake their sins. Here he writes, “In confessing sin to God, there is an appearance of a sense of God’s displeasure for sin, and therefore if confession be sincere, there is really such a sense. We confess to God because we are sensible he has been displeased and provoked, and therefore we come to humble ourselves before him to seek reconciliation. He who truly confesses to God is therefore sensible of God’s holy and pure nature whereby he abhors sin and is much displeased with it. They are sensible of his greatness and majesty which they have affronted and are therefore sensible that God is angry with them.” Note how many times in these few sentences that Edwards uses the word “sensible.” This speaks to Edwards’ contention that genuine Christianity consists in the proper “affections” of the heart. To experience the work of God inwardly through regeneration is to experience a transformation of the basic desires and orientation of one’s thinking and feeling which has as its object a newly acquired sense of the majesty, glory and attractiveness of God.

Chapter 15 contains a sermon entitled, “What is Meant by Believing in Christ?” based on Mark 16:15-16 which was preached to Mohawk Indians in New Jersey in 1752. This is an example of Edwards’ evangelistic preaching, and note the greater simplicity it contains. “Now therefore, let everyone look into and search his own heart and see whether he does truly believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Don’t think it enough that you come to meeting, that you are honest, that you keep the Sabbath days, that you don’t get drunk. You must do these things, must keep the Sabbath, but these things alone won’t do. You must give your whole heart to Christ. Have your eyes ever been opened to see the glorious excellency of Jesus Christ? Has the light of the word of God ever shined into your hearts so that the excellency of that Word that teaches Christ and the way of salvation by him? Has that word of Christ been sweeter to you than the honey on the honeycomb?” Edwards was a firm Calvinist, but his evangelism was informed by the fact that God uses definite means in order to convert souls to Christ. No one shall be shown to be predestined to salvation who also does not hear the gospel faithfully preached and voluntarily exercises his or her will to repent and believe. Edwards was a compatibilist, holding that God’s sovereignty co-exists with human freedom and responsibility.

Edwards’ theology is on full display in these sermons as is his pastoral heart. These messages are a more accessible way to gain entrance into the otherwise heady thinking that marked many of Edwards’ more formidable treatises on theological topics. He was a model of sound doctrinal preaching that never missed a beat when it came to addressing the truth of Scripture to his hearers’ hearts. There is both meat here for Christian growth and reflection as a well as a model for teachers and preachers. We owe a debt of gratitude to Michael McMullen for pulling these sermons together.

Book Review: Ulrich Zwingli (Bitesize Biographies)

Zwingli

William Boekestein has written a much needed little biography of the important Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli, part EP’s Bitesize Biography series. Zwingli is not nearly as well-known as Luther or Calvin. No churches directly trace their heritage to his legacy. Yet in many ways he was just as important as these larger than life figures of the Protestant Reformation. Boekestein’s biography is short (162 pages) but very satisfying. You come to know something of Zwingli that other accounts don’t capture. Zwingli’s reformation of the Swiss canton Zurich roughly coincided with Luther’s reforms in Wittenberg. In fact, Boekestein points out that Zwingli enacted many of the same reforms before knowing anything about Luther. This would indicate that needed reform was in the air and one cannot escape the providential nature of what took place in those heady years beginning around 1517.

Zwingli’s personal turning point began in 1516, one year before Luther’s. There is no evidence that Zwingli or Luther knew of one another before 1521. By 1519, Zwingli had already begun seriously questioning papal authority, the practice of indulgences and other Catholic abuses. Zwingli’s personal reformation began through his discovery of Augustine’s treatise on the gospel of John and his fellow humanist friend Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. When Zwingli was appointed as the pastor of the Great Minister church in Zurich he quickly abandoned the mass and replaced it with expository preaching. He managed to preach through the whole New Testament within 4 years. Like the other Reformers, Zwingli became convinced of the sole authority of Scripture and refused to embrace traditions he believed were linked to the Roman Church.

Just as Zwingli was the first to experience reform in his own ministry, he was also the first Reformer to write a systematic theology entitled, A Commentary on the True and False Religion. Boekestein believes the only reason this work has not had the lasting value that Calvin’s Institutes have had is because he never bothered to revise it as Calvin did his own work—numerous times in fact. Most of Zwingli’s writings were put together hastily and lack the rigor of other Reformed writings. However, I think Boekestein has underestimated the fact that Calvin was a far more innovative, astute and careful theologian than Zwingli ever could have hoped to be and that explains Calvin’s lasting impact. The same could be said for Luther.

Like many of the Reformers, Zwingli’s life was full of contradictions. He believed in the authority of Scripture and spent a great deal of time emphasizing the preaching of the gospel and yet he spent an equal amount of time engaged in politics and meddling in civic affairs. This is understandable since the relationship of church and state during the Reformation was intricately tied to one another. Zwingli decried the mercenary culture of the Swiss military and yet found himself preaching for war when other Swiss cantons resisted and threatened the reforms in the Protestant cantons. He ended up dying at the hands of a Swiss mercenary in Second Kappel War in 1531.

Zwingli also decried the celibacy and rampant sexual immorality of the priesthood and yet himself was engaged in gross fornication early in his ministerial career. His wife Anna was 6 months pregnant before they were secretly married.

But perhaps the most egregious flaw in Zwingli’s life was his treatment of the Anabaptists. Many of these more radical reformers had been students of Zwingli such as Conrad Grebel. The Anabaptist Reformers were a broad lot; and even though they differed significantly on many points of view, most historians tend to lump genuine Anabaptist Reformers with those who are better regarded as true heretics. Boekesteien seems to fall into this familiar trap. For a time, Zwingli appears to have considered the viability of credo-baptism (believer’s baptism) that many of his students adopted and yet in the end defended paedo-baptism (infant baptism). The reason for this defense does not seem to be rooted upon Biblical grounds but political ones. Zwingli, as did other Magisterial Reformers, believed that the dispensing with infant baptism would cause a rift between the covenant community of the church and the civic community. It was believed that the strength of national unity was tied to the initiatory rite of children into the church community through baptism. This supposedly insulated society from becoming vulnerable to outside threats to the state. But the Anabaptists saw no Biblical warrant for such thinking. They believed the marriage of church and state diluted the purity of the church, but for this reason they were regarded as enemies to both church and state. The civil authorities in Zurich banned Anabaptist teaching including credo-baptism and even drowned these believers as punishment.

Boekestein expresses disappointment with Zwingli’s support of executing Anabaptists, but does not seem to express concern for the underlying flaws in the church-state mentality that proliferated the thinking of the Magisterial Reformers. It is interesting that later Baptist theology (growing out of Anabaptist thinking) developed strong arguments for religious liberty that has allowed the flourishing of Christianity in places like the United States. Ironically this thinking has allowed for a stronger Church, whereas nations that have maintained strong church-state ties (many European nations) have diminished the power of the Church over time.

Ulrich Zwingli was certainly an important Reformer and should be praised for his part in advancing the recovery of the gospel in this critical era of church history. Nonetheless, he was a flawed man imbibing many of the prevailing ideas that brought the church to the mess that required the Reformation in the first place. A couple of things should be said about this. First, as a Protestant, one should never expect that the Reformation should have cured every possible ill the church faced at that time. The times and epics in which one lives always has a blinding influence even upon those who have seen the light of better things. The Reformers had many such blind spots and we should be careful about castigating them too much, lest we discover how many blind spots we have ourselves. Secondly, God always uses cracked pots to carry forth the truth. All the great leaders of Biblical history were weak, sin tainted saints whom God used in spite of their shortcomings. Christ builds his church not by perfect men, but by grace-infused men.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews. I was under no obligation to provide a favorable review.