Here’s the post on Reasonable Faith. He’s responding to a questioner who is an atheist,and who thinks that Calvinism makes belief in Christianity impossible.
Part of the question:
In Romans 9, Paul describes Jacob and Esau as being judged as loved and hated (or “loved less”) before they did any good or evil. Paul then goes on to liken all of us as clay molded by a potter, and states that it is not the will of he who runs but of He who shows mercy which saves us. Paul relates God telling Pharaoh: “for this purpose I have raised you up …” and then discusses an idea that the vessels God made for “common use” are there only for the purpose of showing His patience to his more special pots.
Many Reformed think this passage shows double-predestination and unconditional election, and I am forced to agree with them – as is Christ Himself in John 6:65! The Reformed God is something I view as tyrannical and unworthy of worship, and indeed it is tough for someone outside the faith to respond to the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 9 with anything but hatred: as the prominent Reformed scholar James White describes this very chapter, “I understand that the only way one can believe this is by an act of grace.”
In my view, this defeats your position of molinism, since one cannot freely choose God on his own in any potential setting without God’s prior help. Furthermore, the context of the related story in John 6 has disciples abandoning Christ, prompting what He says in 6:65 and proving that Christ is not offered as a free gift to all! What is left for the freedom of man to choose Christ given these passages?
Part of the answer:
Second, let’s talk about Paul’s doctrine of election in Romans 9. I want to share with you a perspective on Paul’s teaching that I think you’ll find very illuminating and encouraging. Typically, as a result of Reformed theology, we have a tendency to read Paul as narrowing down the scope of God’s election to the very select few, and those not so chosen can’t complain if God in His sovereignty overlooks them. I think this is a fundamental misreading of the chapter which makes very little sense in the context of Paul’s letter.
Earlier in his letter Paul addresses the question of what advantage there is to Jewish identity if one fails to live up to the demands of the law (2. 17-3.21). He says that although being Jewish has great advantages in being the recipients of God’s revelatory oracles, nevertheless being Jewish gives you no automatic claim to God’s salvation. Instead, Paul asserts the radical and shocking claim that “He is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is of the heart, spiritual and not literal” (2. 28-29).
Paul held that “no human being will be justified in God’s sight by works of the law” (3.20); rather “we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (3. 29). That includes Gentiles as well as Jews. “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is He not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one” (3. 29-30).
Do you realize what that meant to Paul’s Jewish contemporaries? Gentile “dogs” who have faith in Christ may actually be more Jewish than ethnic Jews and go into the Kingdom while God’s chosen people are shut out! Unthinkable! Scandalous!
Paul goes on to support his view by appeal to the example of none less than Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. Abraham, Paul explains, was pronounced righteous by God before he received circumcision. “The purpose,” says Paul, “was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised [i.e., the Gentiles] and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised [note the qualification!] but also follow the example of faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4.11-12).
This is explosive teaching. Paul begins chapter 9 by expressing his profound sorrow that ethnic Jews have missed God’s salvation by rejecting their Messiah [= Christ]. But he says it’s not as though God’s word had failed. Rather, as we have already seen, “not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his descendants” (9. 6-7). Being ethnically Jewish is not enough; rather one must be a child of the promise—and that, as we’ve seen, may include Gentiles and exclude Jews.
The problematic, then, with which Paul is wrestling is how God’s chosen people the Jews could fail to obtain the promise of salvation while Gentiles, who were regarded by Jews as unclean and execrable, could find salvation instead. Paul’s answer is that God is sovereign: He can save whomever He wants, and no one can gainsay God. He has the freedom to have mercy upon whomever He wills, even upon execrable Gentiles, and no one can complain of injustice on God’s part.
So—and this is the crucial point—who is it that God has chosen to save? The answer is: those who have faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul writes in Galatians (which is a sort of abbreviated Romans), “So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3. 7). Jew or Gentile, it doesn’t matter: God has sovereignly chosen to save all those who trust in Christ Jesus for salvation.
That’s why Paul can go on in Romans 10 to say, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. For ‘everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved'” (10. 12-13). Reformed theology can make no sense at all of this wonderful, universal call to salvation. Whosoever will may come.
Paul’s burden, then, in Romans 9 is not to narrow the scope of God’s election but to broaden it. He wants to take in all who have faith in Christ Jesus regardless of their ethnicity. Election, then, is first and foremost a corporate notion: God has chosen for Himself a people, a corporate entity, and it is up to us by our response of faith whether or not we choose to be members of that corporate group destined to salvation.
Of course, given God’s total providence over the affairs of men, this is not the whole story. But Molinism makes good sense of the rest. John 6. 65 means that apart from God’s grace no one can come to God on his own. But there’s no suggestion there that those who refused to believe in Christ did not do so of their own free will. God knows in exactly what circumstances people will freely respond to His grace and places people in circumstances in which each one receives sufficient grace for salvation if only that person will avail himself of it. But God knows who will respond and who won’t. So again the fault does not lie with God that some persons freely resist God’s grace and every effort to save them; rather they like Israel fail to attain salvation because they refuse to have faith.
My view of election and Romans 9 is corporate election. Like middle knowledge, once you understand the concept of corporate election and re-read Romans 9, it turns out that the whole thing reads naturally. If you reject corporate election and middle knowledge because you like Calvinism, then there are lots of problems with the rest of the Bible, as William Lane Craig described here.
If you’d like to see Bill take on an atheist professor from the prestigious University of Michigan – Ann Arbor, who argues that Calvinist theology disproves the existence of a benevolent God, then read this debate.