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Marc Roby: We are continuing our break from studying theology to look at some current topics of great importance from a Christian perspective. In our last session we noted that we have had 150 years to prove that Karl Marx’s theory of history was wrong. Dr. Spencer, what do you want to examine today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to begin by looking at what the proper role of government is according to the Bible. That will establish a framework within which we can then look at some specific examples of the failure of Marx’s ideas.

In his book Politics According to the Bible, Wayne Grudem argues that the first and most important role of government is to safeguard human liberty.

Marc Roby: How does he support that contention?

Dr. Spencer: He writes that “The Bible consistently places a high value on individual human freedom and responsibility to choose one’s actions.”[1] For example, at the very beginning, we read in Genesis 2:16-17 that “the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’”[2] Notice that this statement shows both freedom and responsibility. God gave man the freedom to choose, but then he also gave him a prohibition and told him what the penalty would be if he violated that prohibition. Adam was a free moral agent who was accountable to God for the choice he made.

Marc Roby: In other words, while the Bible puts a high value on our freedom, that freedom is never absolute.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We are made in God’s image and make real choices, but we are creatures and so, unlike God, our freedom is not absolute.

Marc Roby: That Creator/creature distinction just keeps cropping up.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. And the fundamental failure of all Marxist ideologies is that they deny this biblical principle. They think man is absolute and not accountable to anyone.

But, returning to the proper role of government, in the famous passage about government in Romans Chapter 13 we read, in Verse 4, that the ruler, “is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” That clearly supports the idea that the government is there to serve the people, it is to do us good, which certainly includes protecting the individual rights enumerated in the Bible, including the right to own private property.

Marc Roby: And in order to do good to its subjects, the government must have the power both to defend its citizens from outside aggression and to punish those in the society who do evil.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that power is necessary because people are sinners. In Federalist Number 51, either Hamilton or Madison famously wrote that “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”[3]

Marc Roby: If men were like angels, we’d be in heaven.

Dr. Spencer: That is only true in heaven, you’re right. On the flip side, the statement in Federalist 51 went on to add that “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”[4]

Marc Roby: But, unfortunately, we don’t have angels to govern us right now.

Dr. Spencer: No, we don’t. And so some controls are necessary as we will discuss in a later session. But now, to cite just one more verse about the main purpose of government, Grudem also uses Deuteronomy Chapter 30, where Moses was speaking to the people on the plains of Moab prior to their entering the Promised Land. For those who don’t know the context, God had delivered his people from bondage in Egypt, but had then consigned them to wandering in the desert for forty years because of their disobedience. Moses was speaking to the children of those who had died in the desert and had just finished telling them the blessings that God promised for obedience and the curses that he threatened for disobedience and he then says to them, in Deuteronomy 30:19, “This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live”.

Marc Roby: And again we see liberty, but liberty fenced in by responsibility. People can choose whether or not to obey God, but there are blessings and curses set before them, and their choice determines which they will receive.

Dr. Spencer: And that is a reasonable pattern for civil government to follow as well. People have a God-given right to personal liberty, but there must be laws that bring punishment if they do things that are harmful to others in the society. This isn’t the time to talk about what those laws should be, but the key point is that government’s main role is to provide a structure that protects each citizen’s liberties or rights from being infringed by others—whether by individuals or by the government itself.

Marc Roby: That sounds suspiciously like our Declaration of Independence, right after the famous line that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It goes on to say, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”.[5]

Dr. Spencer: And we are very privileged to live in a country that was founded on that principle. But there have also been a number of attempts over the years at founding societies on socialist principles.

The first one I want to mention was founded by a man named Robert Owen. He was a Welsh textile manufacturer who became wealthy and decided to start a voluntary community of people who would own everything collectively. It was Owen and his supporters who came up with the name “socialism” to describe such an arrangement.[6] He founded a famous experiment, called New Harmony, on the bank of the Wabash River in Indiana in 1825.

Marc Roby: I remember from Muravchik’s book that Marx’s and Engels’ views of Owen, and others who tried similar experiments, were somewhat disparaging. They called the approaches “utopian”, and meant that in a pejorative sense.[7]

Dr. Spencer: That’s very true. Even though Marx believed that communism was inevitable, he had come to the conclusion that the best way to bring it about was by violent revolution. He was afraid, for very good reason as history has shown, that the proletariat might be satisfied by just having good jobs and good lives and might not see their need for a complete revolution.

Marc Roby: That’s awfully ungrateful of those proletarians, not recognizing what wonderful things Marx wanted to do for them and being satisfied with simply achieving a comfortable life.

Dr. Spencer: Marx would certainly have thought so. In his address to the Central Committee of the Communist League in 1850, Marx argued that “the workers must counteract … the bourgeois endeavors to allay the storm, and must compel the democrats to carry out their present terrorist phrases. Their actions must be so aimed as to prevent the direct revolutionary excitement from being suppressed … instances of popular revenge against hated individuals or public buildings … must not only be tolerated but the leadership of them taken in hand.”[8]

Marc Roby: Alright, that’s downright frightening. And it sounds very much like what is going on right now in Portland, Seattle and elsewhere.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, Marx and Engels were also clear about their goals in the Communist Manifesto. They wrote that “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!”[9]

Marc Roby: That is very different from the ideas of Owen.

Dr. Spencer: Very different indeed. Owen thought that socialism would simply be so successful that it would attract people from all over the world to adopt it. But getting back to Marx and Engels, even though they had contempt for the peaceful means used by Owen and others, they acknowledged Owen’s influence. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on the New Harmony experiment, it was a complete failure. Interested listeners can look in Muravchik’s book for the details. But I do want to mention three things.

First, Owen believed that no human “is responsible for his will and his own actions” because “his whole character – physical, mental, and moral – is formed independently of himself.”[10]

Marc Roby: Well, we at least have to admire him for being a consistent materialist. As we have noted before in these podcasts[11], if the physical universe is all that exists, then there is no free will. Human beings are reduced to being nothing more than sophisticated biological machines.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And because Owen thought human behavior is entirely controlled by physical nature and external circumstances, he believed that you could create a new man, perfectly suited for the socialist life, by educating him properly.

Marc Roby: It might be more accurate to say indoctrinating him properly.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. But, in any event, he envisioned three five-year stages of education, beginning at birth, and he thought that the result, at age fifteen, would be “men and women of a new race, physically intellectually and morally; beings far superior to any yet known to have lived upon the earth.”[12]

Marc Roby: It’s interesting that he lists morals even though he thought we are all basically automatons.

Dr. Spencer: Well, its hard, if not impossible, to be 100% consistent as a materialist. But Muravchik makes a very important point about this, he wrote that “the idea of a new man, dimly foreseen by Babeuf but sketched sharply by Owen, became the enduring centerpiece of the socialist vision.”[13] We will see in a future podcast that education, or indoctrination, plays a large role in what is going on in this country now too.

And, much like the vision Marx and Engels sketched of all conflict somehow miraculously ending, Owen said that with this new man, “There will be no cruelty in man’s nature”[14]. In fact, he even thought that the animal world would somehow completely change in character.

Marc Roby: That’s incredible. To summarize, the first thing you wanted to note about the New Harmony experiment is essentially that Owen thought he could create a new race of people through education. What else did you want to point out?

Dr. Spencer: The second thing I want to mention is how completely hostile to God Owen was, which is what you might expect from an ardent materialist. Owen said that “There is no sacrifice … which I … would not have … willingly and joyously made to terminate the existence of religion on earth”.[15]

Marc Roby: Wow. I would say that describing that as hostile is accurate.

Dr. Spencer: And there is a connection with Marx and Engels. Engels attended the so-called “Hall of Science” in Manchester, England in 1843, which was a venue for spreading Owen’s socialist ideas that held Sunday services very much like a church.[16] Engels reported that in the meetings “frequently … Christianity is directly attacked and Christians are called ‘our enemies.’”[17]

Marc Roby: Well, one certainly couldn’t accuse them of trying to hide their hostility toward Christianity.

Dr. Spencer: No, you can’t. And Owen openly espoused a number of ideas that are fundamentally opposed to biblical Christianity. For example, speaking about the New Harmony community again, and quoting from Muravchik, “[Owen’s] critics charged him with advocating free love, and he gave them basis for the charge. Owen argued that the institution of marriage was ‘unnatural’ and ‘rendered prostitution unavoidable.’”[18]

Marc Roby: That is irreconcilably opposed to the biblical view that God created man male and female, established marriage and family in the garden, and said that marriage was for life.

Dr. Spencer: It is absolutely opposed to God’s plan and opposition to the traditional nuclear family is still part of communist beliefs. And Owen’s position went even further. Muravchik notes that “Owen’s design for ‘villages of unity and cooperation’ had been criticized for their proposal that boys and girls share common dormitories in their teen years. … Owen asserted that in the new moral world ‘celibacy, beyond the period plainly indicated for its termination by nature … will be known … to be a great crime.’”[19]

Marc Roby: It sounds like Owen would have been right at home in the 1960’s in this country.

Dr. Spencer: Well, we’ll get to the 1960’s in a later podcast, but they bear a remarkable similarity to these socialist ideas for a very good reason. But let me get to the third and final thing I want to say about New Harmony.

Marc Roby: What is that?

Dr. Spencer: Why it failed. Owen, of course, had his own view. He said that it failed because people who had not been trained as socialists lacked the proper “characteristics of forbearance and charity necessary”.[20] But that explanation really doesn’t make a lot of sense since the people who joined the experiment were self-selected, they were people who thought it was a good idea. So, I’d like to read how Owen’s son explained the failure of the experiment, he was a bit more objective.

Marc Roby: Very well. What did his son say?

Dr. Spencer: Well, his son, Robert Dale Owen, who went on to become a member of the US House of Representatives and to push through the legislation that created the Smithsonian Institution[21], wrote that the most potent factor in the failure was that “All cooperative schemes which provide equal remuneration to the skilled and industrious and the ignorant and idle, must work their own downfall, for by this unjust plan of remuneration they must of necessity eliminate the valuable members – who find their services reaped by the indigent – and retain only the improvident, unskilled, and vicious members.”[22]

Marc Roby: Ouch! That’s brutal. In other words, socialism doesn’t take into account human nature.

Dr. Spencer: True. But he was speaking particularly about voluntary communities of people. The same problem manifests itself in different ways when people do not have the freedom to quit the cooperative arrangement as we’ll see later.

We don’t have time to go into more examples of voluntary communities in any detail, but if people read Muravchik’s book, they will learn of other similar experiments both before and after Marx. The most recent, and – how shall I put this – least of a failure? Is the Kibbutz movement in Israel. In the 20th century there were hundreds of kibbutzim, but by early in the 21st century they had all voluntarily abandoned communal living. It simply doesn’t work, even with people who are passionate about trying to make it work.

Marc Roby: But, of course, most of the experiments in socialism have not been voluntary groups of individuals.

Dr. Spencer: No, unfortunately, they have not. And the history of socialism among countries is much sadder than the failure of the voluntary communities. There has not been a single solitary example of a socialist or communist nation that has been successful in providing a good standard of living and freedom for its people.

Marc Roby: And I look forward to examining that topic further next time, but we are out of time for today, so I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We will do our best to answer you.

 

[1] W. Grudem, Politics According to the Bible, Zondervan, 2010, pg. 91

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952, Vol. 43, pg. 163, also available at https://guides.loc.gov/federalist-papers/text-51-60

[4] Ibid

[5] From a transcript of the Declaration of Independence, available at https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

[6] Joshua Muravchik, Heaven on Earth, the Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism, Encounter Books, 2019, pg. 28

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid, pg. 75

[9] Great Books of the Western World, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 1952, Vol. 50, pg. 434, also available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Manifesto.pdf

[10] Muravchik, op. cit., pg. 33

[11] See Session 1 page 4 and Session 102 page 6

[12] Muravchik, op. cit., pg. 34

[13] Ibid, pg. 35

[14] Ibid

[15] Ibid, pg. 33

[16] Ibid, pg. 57, and also see https://radicalmanchester.wordpress.com/2009/10/29/the-hall-of-science/

[17] Ibid, pg. 58

[18] Ibid, pg. 45

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid, pg. 47

[21] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Dale_Owen

[22] Muravchik, op. cit., pp 48-49

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. Dr. Spencer, at the end of our session last week we dealt with the very difficult material in Romans Chapter 9, where Paul tells us quite clearly about God’s sovereign election of some to be saved and others not to be saved. How would you like to proceed today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to say a little more about the presentation in Romans 9 and then defend the biblical view of God’s sovereign unconditional election against some of the most common objections. The doctrine of unconditional election says that God chooses whom he will save based on his own good pleasure and not any merit in us.

The last thing we looked at in Romans 9 was God’s response to man’s objection that it isn’t fair for God to judge him given that God is completely sovereign in deciding whom to save.

Marc Roby: And God’s answer, in essence, was to shut your mouth. As a mere creature you have no business questioning the Creator.

Dr. Spencer: That was the answer. And then Paul went on, in Romans 9:21-24 to say, “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use? What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction? What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory—even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?”[1]

Marc Roby: Those verses are extremely difficult for people to accept. We spoke at length about them recently, in Session 109.

Dr. Spencer: And interested listeners can go to the archive and read or listen to that podcast. I don’t want to repeat it all here. But we noted there that an unbeliever will not accept the answer. He will continue to accuse God of being unfair. But a believer will accept God’s answer, even though it is still hard.

Marc Roby: Yes, it is very hard to understand. When we are born again, we are given a new worldview, which accepts God’s Word as our ultimate standard for truth even though God has not revealed a complete answer to the question of how to reconcile his sovereignty and our freedom.

Dr. Spencer: The tension between man’s freedom, or responsibility, and God’s sovereignty is one of the most difficult things for us to deal with. And I say “deal with” rather than “understand” because we can’t fully understand it. We can see that it is not a true contradiction, but we cannot fully resolve the tension.

In his commentary on Romans, the Rev. P.G. Mathew wrote that “The point of contention in Romans 9-11 is the conflict between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. Paul never offers a logical solution to this tension, except when he concludes ‘Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?” “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen.”[2]

Marc Roby: And that says about all that we, as creatures, can say in regard to this issue. As we are told in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s quite true. We cannot fully explain how to reconcile God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom and responsibility. But we certainly can say a bit more about whether or not the Lutheran and Arminian position avoids this complication. Remember that Lutherans and Arminians claim that every human being has the ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. They assume that by doing so, they protect God from the charge of being unfair by electing some to salvation while leaving others to pay for their sins in hell.

We have already shown that this is at odds with the biblical teaching, but we can say even more, because even if it were a possible interpretation of the biblical data, it doesn’t shield God from man’s charge of being unfair.

Marc Roby: Well, please explain why not.

Dr. Spencer: The 19th-century theologian Charles Hodge said it well, so let me quote him. He wrote that “If it be right that God should permit an event to happen, it must be right that He should purpose to permit it, i.e., that He should decree its occurrence.”[3]

Marc Roby: That’s a very important point, and a great way of putting it. If we think we are somehow isolating God from a charge of being unfair for his eternal election by leaving it up to men, we still have to face the problem that according to the Lutheran and Arminian view God permits some people to refuse his offer and go to hell. The end result is the same, not everyone is saved. So, as Hodge says, if it is right for God to permit such an event, it must also be right if his purpose is to permit it, or we could say, if he foreordains it.

Dr. Spencer: And Hodge draws a very reasonable conclusion from this observation. We must remember that he refers to the reformed view of the decree of election as the “Augustinian system”, since it was also the teaching of St. Augustine. Hodge wrote that “The Augustinian system, therefore, is nothing but the assumption that God intended in eternity what He actually does in time.”[4]

Marc Roby: And that sounds eminently reasonable. The only logical alternative is that God is no longer sovereign over his creation, which would be a frightening thought.

Dr. Spencer: That would be a very frightening thought. We would not be able to trust any of God’s promises. And so, as you said, Hodge’s conclusion is completely reasonable. He goes on to write that all “anti-Augustinian systems”, which certainly includes Lutheran and Arminian theologies, “assume that God is bound to provide salvation for all; to give sufficient grace to all; and to leave the question of salvation and perdition to be determined by each man for himself. … The question is not which of these theories is the more agreeable, but which is true.”[5]

Marc Roby: That’s a critically important point. We should want to know the truth, even if that truth is in some way less agreeable to us.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we certainly should. Especially when we take into account the fact that we are finite, sinful creatures, so what we think of as being agreeable certainly should not be the standard we use. But Hodge goes on to make a very good point about which view is true.

Marc Roby: Alright, please proceed.

Dr. Spencer: He writes, “And to decide that question one method is to ascertain which accords best with providential facts. Does God in his providential dealings with men act on the principles of sovereignty, distributing his favours according to the good pleasure of his will; or on the principle of impartial justice, dealing with all men alike? This question admits of but one answer. … the fact is patent that the greatest inequalities do exist among men; that God deals far more favourably with some than with others; that He distributes his providential blessings, which include not only temporal good but also religious advantages and opportunities, as an absolute sovereign according to his own good pleasure”.[6]

Marc Roby: I’m afraid I have noticed that “the greatest inequalities do exist among men”, we certainly aren’t all equally capable in virtually any endeavor I can think of.

Dr. Spencer: No, we aren’t. And we need to recognize that God is the one who sovereignly decides what gifts to give to each person. In 1 Corinthians 12 the apostle Paul addresses the issue of gifts given to different people in the church and he writes, in Verse 11, that “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” And this isn’t just true of gifts we are given for the edification of God’s church. God is sovereign over all the affairs of men. When Paul was speaking to the people in Athens he declared, as we read in Acts 17:26, that from one man God “made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”

Marc Roby: The Old Testament teaches us the very same thing. For example, in Job 12:23 we read that God “makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them.” And, in Psalm 139:16 King David declared to God that “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Dr. Spencer: It is a clear teaching of the Bible that God is sovereign over every detail of life. We don’t choose where, when or to whom we are born, and we don’t get to choose how tall we are, what color hair we have, what gifts we have and so on. And the flip side of that is that we have no basis for pride if we possess some particular gift, be it intellectual, musical, athletic or whatever, and we also have no rational basis for thinking that God has been unfair to us if our gifts aren’t as great as we would like. God doesn’t owe us anything. He never treats anyone unjustly.

Marc Roby: Do you think there is someone whose gifts are as great as he or she would like?

Dr. Spencer: Well, I doubt it. I certainly haven’t met the person. But let me finish this discussion by stating Hodge’s conclusion. He wrote, “It is therefore vain to adopt a theory which does not accord with these facts. It is vain for us to deny that God is a sovereign in the distribution of his favours if in his providence it is undeniable that He acts as a sovereign. Augustinianism accords with these facts of providence, and therefore must be true. It only assumes that God acts in the dispensation of his grace precisely as He acts in the distribution of his other favours; and all anti-Augustinian systems which are founded on the principle that this sovereignty of God is inconsistent with his justice and his parental relation to the children of men are in obvious conflict with the facts of his providence.”

Marc Roby: That is a very solid, logical argument. We should avoid having our theology be inconsistent with known facts.

Dr. Spencer: We should avoid holding any theory that contradicts known facts, whether we are talking about theology, physics, chemistry or whatever. But in every one of these fields there is a natural tendency to construct theories that are consistent with our own underlying assumptions. And if some of our assumptions are wrong, we are going to come up with wrong theories.

Marc Roby: And when we see that one of our theories doesn’t comport with the facts, it should cause us to go back and reconsider our assumptions.

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point. We should seek to gather together all of the available data and then find the theory that best explains all of it. That is no less true in theology than it is in physics and chemistry. But in doing this, we have to realize that we need some ultimate standard for determining truth and, as we have said many times, the ultimate standard of truth for a Christian is the Bible.

Hodge wrote, “If the office of the theologian, as is so generally admitted, be to take the facts of Scripture as the man of science does those of nature, and found upon them his doctrines, instead of deducing his doctrines from the principles or primary truths of his philosophy, it seems impossible to resist the conclusion that the doctrine of Augustine is the doctrine of the Bible. According to that doctrine God is an absolute sovereign. He does what seems good in his sight. He sends the truth to one nation and not to another. He gives that truth saving power in one mind and not in another. It is of him, and not of us, that any man is in Christ Jesus, and is an heir of eternal life.”

Marc Roby: It is interesting that Hodge notes in that statement that God doesn’t send the truth to every nation. In other words, not every human being who has ever lived has heard the gospel.

Dr. Spencer: That statement is undeniably true. And it also argues against the standard Lutheran or Arminian position. No one can accept as true a gospel they have never heard, and it is obvious that not everyone in history has heard the gospel. So even if all people did have equal ability to respond in faith, not all have equal opportunity and you’re right back to the initial question about God’s fairness. We can’t let our own idea of fairness overrule what the Bible clearly teaches.

There is one final argument that Hodge makes against those who object to the doctrine of unconditional election.

Marc Roby: What argument is that?

Dr. Spencer: He points out that Paul would not have had to provide the answers he does in Chapter 9 of the book of Romans if the Lutheran and Arminian position were true. Hodge wrote, “What appearance of injustice could there have been had Paul taught that God elects those whom He foresees will repent and believe, and because of that foresight? It is only because he clearly asserts the sovereignty of God that the objections have any place.”[7]

Marc Roby: That’s a fantastic point. Paul’s asking and answering the question about fairness makes no sense if the Lutheran and Arminian understanding is correct.

Dr. Spencer: The bottom line is that we may think that fairness requires God to give all of us the same ability to accept or reject his gospel offer, but our thinking that does not make it so.

Marc Roby: And perhaps there are good reasons for not giving us all the same ability.

Dr. Spencer: Well, in fact, I would say that there are. We have shown before because of our total depravity, if God didn’t do anything, no one would choose to believe and we would all be condemned. Our natures are initially at enmity with God and cannot choose him.

But on the other hand, if God changes our nature so that we love him, which is what happens when we are born again, then we are guaranteed to choose him.

Marc Roby: And it seems like we are right back to the issue of free will, which we have discussed before.

Dr. Spencer: That is exactly the problem. The notion that our will is completely free from any constraint, even our own predispositions, is illogical. As we have discussed before, unless you want to think that your decisions are completely randomly, there must be some predisposition one way or the other for us to make any decision. So, in particular, the idea that we could be in some neutral state where we could freely choose either to accept or reject God is, I think, simply impossible. We are either against God, or for him. There can be no neutrality. And, in fact, I would argue that if someone was neutral, that would be sinful. How could you not love the perfect God? How could you be neutral toward your Creator?

Marc Roby: I see your point. And it appears as though we have finished discussing the doctrine of unconditional election. Is that true?

Dr. Spencer: For now, yes.

Marc Roby: Very well, then this looks like a good place to stop for today. Let me remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d appreciate hearing from you.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Life (Volume 2), Grace and Glory Ministries, 2014, pp 62-63

[3] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. II, pg. 336

[4] Ibid, pg. 337

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid, pp 337-338

[7] Ibid, pg. 352

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the providence of God. Last time we discussed miracles, which represent an extraordinary example of God’s governing his creation. Dr. Spencer, what would you like to discuss today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to briefly discuss God’s eternal decrees. We already examined God’s decretive will, which is simply whatever actually happens, in Sessions 84, 85 and 86. But I want to take some time to relate God’s decrees to his providence. In their book A Puritan Theology, Joel Beeke and Mark Jones note that “Providence is not the same as God’s predestination or eternal decree, but rather is the execution of that decree within the time and space of His creation.”[1]

Marc Roby: Perhaps we could summarize what we have said before by saying that God’s eternal decrees are, essentially, his overall plan for creation, while God’s providence is his preserving and governing his creation to bring that plan to fruition.

Dr. Spencer: And Wayne Grudem says much the same thing in his Systematic Theology. He writes that God’s “providential actions are the outworking of the eternal decrees that he made long ago.”[2] When we first started discussing God’s providence we noted, in Session 89, that it is purposeful. He governs his creation for the purpose of bringing about the end he decreed from before the beginning. In Isaiah 46:9-10 God tells us, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.”[3]

The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning God …” and then it goes on to tell us his purposes for creation, to tell us about the fall and how we may be saved. And, along the way, it tells us about our proper role as God’s image bearers in creation and gives us numerous examples of his providential governing of his creation to instruct and encourage us.

Marc Roby: And it is very important to emphasize that while God has decreed all things from before the beginning, he also made man with a degree of free will. Our actions have real consequences for ourselves and for others and we make real decisions for which we will be justly held accountable.

Dr. Spencer: That is a critically important point. Many people throughout history have either wrongly rejected the doctrine of God’s eternal decrees because they think it eliminates man’s freedom, or they have wrongly concluded that how they live and what they do doesn’t matter. But the proper biblical understanding is that God has ordained both the end to be achieved and the means to achieve that end. And he has chosen to use us as secondary agents with a degree of freedom and responsibility to accomplish his purposes.

Marc Roby: In other words, God’s eternal decrees and his providence do not negate human responsibility.

Dr. Spencer: Not at all. I think Wayne Grudem is right to deal with this subject in the chapter on God’s providence in his Systematic Theology.[4] God has ordained all things that happen, but he has also ordained the means to achieve those ends, and most importantly from our perspective, he has created us as moral creatures with a degree of free will who can be justly held accountable for our actions.

Marc Roby: Now, when you say that we have a “degree” of free will, you are emphasizing the fact that our freedom is constrained, right?

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. We talked about this in Session 84. We do not have absolute freedom in the sense of being able to make any and every decision. That is incompatible with making intelligent, as opposed to random, choices. My freedom is constrained by my nature because what I decide to do in any given situation depends on what I believe to be right or wrong and by what things I enjoy or don’t enjoy, or perceive to be worthwhile or not and so on.

Marc Roby: Which means, as we pointed out before, that since God knows us perfectly, he can predict exactly what we will do in any and every situation and can, therefore, ordain whatever comes to pass without negating our freedom.

Dr. Spencer: And, in addition, it means that what I do really does matter. Since God chooses to work through secondary agents, I may very well be his ordained means for bringing about a particular result. The fact that he ordained the result does not in any way detract from my free agency in producing it. Grudem gives a great biblical illustration that our choices matter even though God has ordained the outcome.

Marc Roby: What example is that?

Dr. Spencer: It’s Paul’s shipwreck while he is being taken to Rome. In Acts 27:24 Paul tells the men on the ship that God had revealed to him that they would all survive, but that the ship would be lost. Then, in Verse 30 we read that some of the sailors lowered a life boat and were preparing to abandon the ship. In response, Paul tells the centurion and soldiers in charge, in Verse 31, that “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” As a result, the soldiers cut the ropes attached to the life boat and let it float away.

The relevant thing for our present purposes is that even though God had revealed to Paul that everyone would survive, he told the centurion that “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” Note the word “cannot” – it expresses an impossibility. The sailors had to stay with the ship or what God had revealed to Paul could not come true.

Marc Roby: That is a very interesting point.

Dr. Spencer: Grudem draws the right conclusion from it. He wrote, “Wisely, Paul knew that God’s providential oversight and even his clear prediction of what would happen still involved the use of ordinary human means to bring it about. He was even so bold to say that those means were necessary … We would do well to imitate his example, combining complete trust in God’s providence with a realization that the use of ordinary means is necessary for things to come out the way God has planned them to come out.”[5]

Marc Roby: That is a very clear example of the fact that what we do really does matter. And it isn’t just our actions that matter, our prayers do as well. In James 5:16 we are told that “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

Dr. Spencer: Prayer is definitely one of the means that God has ordained to accomplish his purposes. It isn’t magic, but it definitely matters. God knows what we are going to pray before we do, so it isn’t that we are telling him something he doesn’t know, or making a request he isn’t already aware of, but it is still true that it is a means he has ordained.

Marc Roby: Of course there are other purposes for prayer as well. For example, it helps us to stay humble and to be consciously aware of our dependence on God.

Dr. Spencer: Sure, prayer does serve other purposes as well, and we can’t presume upon the answer, it may be “no”. But, nevertheless, prayer does have real efficacy in bringing about events. It is important to note however that we shouldn’t just pray if there are things we have it within our power to do to help a situation. Consider Joshua as an example.

Marc Roby: You mean the Joshua who succeeded Moses and led the Israelites into the Promised Land, right?

Dr. Spencer: That’s the one. When the Israelites had first entered the Promised Land and were preparing to attack Jericho, God told them, as we read in Joshua 6:18-19, that after he caused the walls to come down and the people went up into the city, they must not[6] take any of the silver, gold, or articles of bronze and iron for themselves. These were to be considered sacred to the Lord and if anyone took any of them, they would make the Israelites liable to destruction.

Marc Roby: Which is exactly what happened. After conquering Jericho, the Israelites attempted to conquer Ai and were routed by the men of Ai.

Dr. Spencer: And because of that rout Joshua and the people were afraid and we’re told in Joshua 7:6-9 how he responded. He “tore his clothes and fell facedown to the ground before the ark of the LORD, remaining there till evening. The elders of Israel did the same, and sprinkled dust on their heads. And Joshua said, ‘Ah, Sovereign LORD, why did you ever bring this people across the Jordan to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us? If only we had been content to stay on the other side of the Jordan! O Lord, what can I say, now that Israel has been routed by its enemies? The Canaanites and the other people of the country will hear about this and they will surround us and wipe out our name from the earth. What then will you do for your own great name?’”

Marc Roby: God’s response was probably not what Joshua was expecting.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure that it wasn’t at all what he was expecting. He was pouring out his heart in prayer, but he wasn’t doing what he should be doing. God had told them that if they took some of the forbidden items the Israelites would become liable to destruction, so Joshua should have been investigating to see who had violated God’s prohibition. Even heartfelt prayer is never to be used as an alternative to action when we have the means at our disposal to do God’s will.

Marc Roby: And so we read, in Joshua 7:10-12, that “The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Stand up! What are you doing down on your face? Israel has sinned; they have violated my covenant, which I commanded them to keep. They have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen, they have lied, they have put them with their own possessions. That is why the Israelites cannot stand against their enemies’”.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, God was not pleased with Joshua’s prayer. He told him to gather the people and find out who had stolen some of the items, which they did. It turned out that a man by the name of Achan had stolen a beautiful robe from Babylonia, two hundred shekels of silver and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels. Only after the Israelites obeyed God and destroyed Achan, his family and all he owned, did God bless them again.

Marc Roby: I’m sure that episode brought a greater fear of God to the people and made them far more careful to obey his commands.

Dr. Spencer: And, in keeping with our current topic, I’m also sure that Joshua learned that he needed to do those things that were in his power and in God’s will rather than just crying out to God for help. There is nothing wrong with prayer, and Joshua certainly could and should have prayed for God to give him wisdom and to show him why the Israelites were defeated, but it is false piety to expend great energy crying out to God when he has already told us what he wants us to do.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of the quote you read at the end of Session 91 from A Puritan Theology, it said that “Stephen Charnock warned that pride uses means without seeking God, and presumption depends on God while neglecting the means God provides.”[7]

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that’s a great quote. We want to avoid both pride and presumption. We should seek God and pray, but we must also do the work he has given us to do using the means he has provided. Grudem points out three additional points of application for the doctrine of God’s providence.[8] He first notes that God’s providence should cause us to not be afraid, but to trust in God. If we have done what it is within our power to do, it is right for us to not worry about the outcome, but to leave it up to God.

Marc Roby: We have a great example of that in 2 Samuel 10:12 where the commander of King David’s armies faced a difficult situation and he said, “Be strong and let us fight bravely for our people and the cities of our God. The LORD will do what is good in his sight.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a wonderful example of this principle.

The second application Grudem makes from this doctrine is that we should be thankful for every good thing that happens to us. They are all under the control of our great sovereign Lord and King. In Psalm 103:2-5 we read, “Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”

Marc Roby: God is wonderful to his people. And I would add that even when bad things happen to us, we can give thanks to God for his promise in Romans 8:28 that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, good point. Grudem’s third point of application is that there is no such thing as luck or chance, a point we already made in Sessions 88 and 89. We can be confident that God is in charge, which means that all we have to focus on is walking in obedience and doing what he calls us to do. We can leave the results up to him.

Marc Roby: That is a great comfort. Are we done with discussing God’s providence?

Dr. Spencer: We are. And we are also finished with theology proper. We certainly may come back to it, but I think we’ve covered all we need to for now.

Marc Roby: Perhaps it would be good to remind our listeners that we are going through the six loci of classical reformed theology. A locus is a central point or focus of something, so the six loci are the six main headings under which we can organize all of systematic theology. Those six loci are: 1) Theology proper, which means the study of God; 2) Anthropology, which means the study of man; 3) Christology, which means the study of Jesus Christ the Redeemer; 4) Soteriology, which means the study of salvation; in other words, how sinful men can be saved; 5) Ecclesiology, which means the study of the church; and 6) Eschatology, which means the study of last things; in other words, of the final eternal state of everything. So, I assume we are going to move on then to examine biblical anthropology next time?

Dr. Spencer: That is the plan.

Marc Roby: Very good. Then I’d like to remind our listeners that they can email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org, we’d love to hear from you.

[1] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 163

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1994, pg. 332

[3] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[4] Grudem, op. cit., See Section E. starting on pg. 333

[5] Grudem, op. cit. pg. 336

[6] The word “not” was left out of the original transcript by error. Corrected on 4/19/19

[7] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, op. cit., pg. 170

[8] Grudem, op. cit., pg. 337

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