For the Reformation: God’s Choices Based on God’s Purposes (Part Two)

Now into part two of my rebuttal of Rocky Munoz’s critique of Unconditional Election, the focus has shifted to another explanation he offers. Instead of interpreting passages seemingly showing God’s choosing of individuals in the typical Reformed manner, Munoz sees them as speaking about groups of people:  

Now, don’t get too antsy. Paul is speaking corporately here (as opposed to our hyper-individualistic tendency to interpret such passages). Saying that God chose to have a corporate body of saints (v 1) is a far cry from saying that God hand selected each individual that would be in that body. Moreover, the fact that God’s election was specifically done according to His kindness should raise flags for Calvinist theology, since choosing the reprobate for damnation could hardly be an act of kindness.

Here’s a similar example:

[God] has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity. (1 Tim 1:9)

Again, the ecclesial nature of Paul’s letter ought to tip us off to the fact that he is talking to the church as a community, not as merely a collection of individuals. But, more to the point of this post, God’s calling was done in according with God’s grace and purpose. It was not unconditional.

This brings me to my next point. It is simply mind-boggling to me that Munoz can consider this corporate view of predestined salvation (as opposed to an individualistic view) to be a genuine solution to his stated concern with Calvinist theology in any way. Is he instead suggesting, then, that Paul wants us to understand what is referred to in 1 Timothy 1:9, a salvation and calling “not according to our works,” to means collective works rather than individual works? And furthermore, why should this passage even be interpreted in such a strange way? We’re never told.

Let me explain further why his response to the Calvinist position basically contributes nothing to the conversation. If, for sake of argument, God’s corporate body of saints included only nine or ten individuals rather than many, then the issue becomes obvious: God would have still spared only some from judgment and left others to damnation.

The number, in reality, is inconsequential. It truly solves nothing to say that God predetermined the existence of a group of people that would receive salvation. Is membership within the group conditioned on anything? Is it faith? Well, then, why do some people muster up the required faith while others don’t? Did God know that certain people would never have faith? If so, why did He even create them? Why would God not be complicit in the creation of individuals whom He knew were “doomed” to fail in any sense?

These are questions more highly related to theodicy, I know. But they’re still worth raising because it’s where Munoz’s argumentation inevitably takes us. What we have here is the difference between God’s initiating creation with a sovereign purpose and God’s initiating creation without a sovereign purpose. And I would maintain that envisioning God abstractly “choosing” a community of believers is a lot more on the side of probabilities than certainties with regard to issues of salvation.

But back to the topic of Unconditional Election. You see, Munoz’s hidden assumption (to be revealed in his final post on Total Depravity) is that those who are saved are only those who were able to freely choose to follow God without being coerced. He doesn’t believe that every person from birth is a rebellious and God-hating sinner, that regeneration by the Holy Spirit always comes prior to faith, that God the Father has given particular individuals to God the Son for whom He had to die without fail, or that God has the irresistible power to keep His saints from stumbling or falling away permanently.

And again, the idea that “God’s calling was done in according with God’s grace and purpose,” as Munoz reminds us, does mean that it was conditioned on something—that is, on God’s perfect wisdom and righteous decree. I absolutely agree. The point of the Calvinist position, however, is that it was not conditioned in any way on the merits or personal characteristics of the individual people chosen themselves.

There are several other passages that are often brought up in defense of Unconditional Election (Rom 9:11-13, 16; 10:20; 1 Cor 1:27-29; 2 Tim 1:9), all of which reference God’s intentional efforts to draw people to Himself, none of which actually support the Calvinist doctrine that says God unconditionally chose some for salvation and others for damnation. If you’re interested, I would encourage you to go back and read these passages within their context and with the understanding that Paul is speaking corporately (or communally), not individualistically. Even references to the individuals Jacob and Esau (Rom 9:11-13) are meant to regard them as figureheads or representations for the nations of Israel and Edom (or gentiles in general). Once we stop reading Scripture as radically individualistic, 21st century westerners, and start reading it as communally minded, first century Christians, we find that the Calvinist interpretation of these passages is not so much dependent on what the text says as they are on cultural lenses through which we have come to read it. Once those lenses are gone, Unconditional Election (along with the other four points) becomes pretty shaky.

Let me reiterate that this idea of corporate salvation doesn’t solve anything. All that it does, in fact, is make salvation of individuals even less certain, since it involves an abstract concept of a group of believers that could potentially have included no one. It’s also begging the question, i.e. the assumption that any individual can freely choose to accept God and follow His righteous decrees apart from the regenerative work of God.

The only alternative here is to argue that, even though God didn’t freely choose anyone, those who chose Him coincidentally ended up being “the foolish things of the world [that would] shame the wise” and vice-versa. So, in other words, God had nothing to do with it—man did—and yet there’s still some reason that “no man may boast before God.”

Frankly, I find such an interpretation to be incredible. And furthermore, I fail to see how this works alongside or is actually congruent with what Scripture is teaching. But I certainly invite anyone to correct me in a comment.

What Munoz calls “radically individualistic” as an interpretation, I would call radically God-centered rather than man-centered. It was God’s purpose “which was granted to us” (1 Tim 1:9) through His own free and uninhibited working. It was not through our own response born out of philosophical reasoning or savvy or some mysterious, heartfelt desire to suddenly do what God has always wanted. Once we stop reading Scripture as though we’re thoroughly innocent and consistently honest soul-searching 21st century do-gooders, and start reading it as flawed individuals who know fully well that we would not have believed, accepted, or been changed by one syllable of the gospel apart from the grace of God, we will likely find that the non-Reformed interpretation of these passages is not so much dependent on what the text says as it is on the various, human-centered anthropological lenses through which we have come to read them. Once those lenses are shattered and done away with, something entirely different starts to emerge.

Now, again, some within the Calvinist tradition see the problem here. It would seem that in the doctrine of Unconditional Election God’s actions are no more just than a cosmic game of Russian roulette—completely random, and ultimately unjust. So, in an attempt to distance God’s character from that of, say, the villain Two-Face from D.C. Comics, they have sought to assign some sort of reason or rationality to God’s election. One such approach is to say that God looked into the future, saw who would choose to accept His salvation, and then chose those individuals as His elect.

This “approach” that he mentions, in reality, is instead my opposing position’s approach—specifically, the Arminian or Pelagian one. Munoz is ridiculing the wrong side here. But what this view assumes (by denying Total Depravity, or Total Inability) is that God could look into the future and see fallen, rebellious sinners “freely” choosing Christ and submitting to God’s will in righteousness. The Reformed perspective would actually deny this because it instead argues that God always needs to have initiated a person’s regeneration, faith, and repentance to begin with. But I digress.

“On the other hand, the idea that God chose select individuals based on a foreknowledge of their future choices actually undermines the doctrine of Unconditional Election since it ascribes a condition upon which God made His election, namely those future choices. One of the underlying goals of Calvinist theology is to ascribe all the credit of salvation to God’s initiative. But if God’s initiative is based on human free will, then we can’t help but say that God’s initiative is not the only thing contributing to salvation. And that’s just not okay for Calvinist theology.”

Munoz is absolutely correct: this view does undermine the doctrine of Unconditional Election. But we’ve seen that the view that God chooses individuals based on seeing their future decisions isn’t a Calvinist view anyway. So why are we talking about it as though it spells the doomed destruction of Calvinism from the inside?

But don’t take my word for it. In his blog post, Five Reasons to Embrace Unconditional Election, Calvinist theologian and former pastor John Piper offers this pointed definition:

‘Unconditional election is God’s free choice before creation, not based on foreseen faith, to which traitors he will grant faith and repentance, pardoning them and adopting them into his everlasting family of joy. (emphasis mine)’

Of course, Johnny boy doesn’t mention the negative side of that definition (that God chose to withhold faith and repentance from the rest of humanity), but he did make a point of refuting the notion that God chose His elect based on their future faith.

Yes, Piper refuted this notion because he’s a Calvinist and the idea of God choosing people based on their foreseen faith is a distinctly non-Calvinist position.

But Munoz’s other point still needs to be addressed, what he calls “the negative side” of this doctrine in which “God chose to withhold faith and repentance from the rest of humanity.” Based on his view that true justice must include proportionality or causality, he sees this situation of deliberate choice to the exclusion of others as unjust.

Of course, the truth is that any view that understands God to know anything about the future decisions of individuals with regard to salvation or damnation must somehow answer this same problem. If God knowingly created an individual whom He knew would absolutely and irrevocably never choose to follow Him, then under Munoz’s view of justice, He needs to have either forced this person to follow Him or He would be considered unjust.

What we instead see with Jesus, as He’s revealed in the gospels, is His praising the Father for the very thing that Munoz regards as unjust and disproportionate—hiding the gospel from particular people:

I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was well-pleasing in Your sight. All things have been entrusted to Me by My Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” (Matthew 11:25-27)

This hiding of the truth from people is condemnatory and judicial in nature. It is also said to have been “well-pleasing” in the Father’s eyes. I realize that these types of passages, which clearly speak of both the Father’s and the Son’s sovereign choice in selecting particular people to receive revelation and enlighten, were never touched on by Munoz. I bring these up now because it is still essential for him to address them, especially if his critique is to be fair and comprehensive toward the Calvinist position.

The remainder of Munoz’s response is mostly addressed toward an article by pastor/theologian John Piper. His first, primary concern is this:

[Piper] writes that we should embrace unconditional election because it is true (which is a perfect example of the begging the question fallacy), saying, ‘All my objections to unconditional election collapsed when I could no longer explain away Romans 9.’ Apparently he must not have been trying very hard, since a proper explanation of that chapter ought to have been more than enough. I could go on, but feel free to bring your own critical eye to his post.

Munoz’s objection here makes it abundantly clear that I ought to devote an entire post to this issue of interpreting Romans chapter 9. Suffice it for now to note that interpreting this passage as being about nations rather than individuals creates a great deal of problems with the flow and consistency of Paul’s argument.

Let me explain this briefly. The only way to understand Romans 9:6 (the very fulcrum of Paul’s argument regarding the salvation of Jews, “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel”) is that it has reference to individual Israelites within the nation of Israel. Paul is not talking about nations. If he were, then he would instead be saying something like, “they are not all nations of Israel who are descended from the nation of Israel.” I challenge anyone to make sense of this alteration on Paul’s statement.

Instead of nations, it is evident that Paul is talking about individual persons who are Jews according to the flesh. Yet what he is offering on top of this is the truth that there are God-loving, spiritual Jews and those who are merely Jews physically—Jews by ethnicity, but who do not actually love God or follow Him. This is precisely why Paul goes on to speak of a remnant of spiritual Israelites within physical Israel who will indeed be saved as a result of God’s sovereign grace (vv. 27-29).

Munoz continues by reflecting—again, wrongly—on the idea that God’s choice in Calvinism completely had no conditions and was therefore random:

In the meantime, I want to highlight something in Piper’s definition of Unconditional Election that still fails to acknowledge the absurdity of the doctrine. He writes that Unconditional Election “is God’s free choice”; however, it starts to become difficult to understand what it means for God to make such a choice, since saying God’s choice is unconditional seems to imply that it was in fact not an act of “free choice” by God, but of capriciousness.

One would assume that a genuine free choice by God would be made with reason, love, and justice. But those would be conditions, wouldn’t they?”

Without such things, however, God’s choice is utterly random and arbitrary, no more of a decision than the spastic flicker of an eyelid. After all, what is the difference between God choosing some and not others based on absolutely nothing, and God choosing some and not others at random? 

Okay, so maybe God’s choice of His elect is random, some might respond. So what? At least that randomness results in grace for some.

And this seems to be the last ditch effort to save the doctrine of Unconditional Election. Even if God’s election is about as just as throwing spaghetti at a wall, at least some of it stuck. Some people are still being saved, and that is more grace than we humans have a right to demand from God.

Why? Because in Calvinist theology nobody deserves God’s grace and love.

This warrants yet another correction. The Calvinist, when he or she uses the term “unconditional election,” means to communicate that God’s choice gives no regard to the characteristics, works, achievements, propensities toward faithfulness or righteousness, or anything else on the part of any creature. Perhaps it could more accurately be termed “Non-Meritorious Election.” God’s choices are conditioned, however, on His own good purposes; thus, it is incorrect to call them arbitrary or capricious. So, yes, these are essential conditions with which God’s decree might inevitably be in agreement. But they are still conditions that are external to the creatures in question.

In contrast with the sort of choice on God’s part actually being described by Calvinist theology, randomness is impersonal and has no relevance when it comes to the idea of God personally choosing someone. Even if God’s election were true, it could never be accurately characterized as “random” because it is understood as being the result of His perfect wisdom, and it involves a conscious decision on God’s part in which he personally and intimately reconciles individuals to Himself.

Is God’s judgment of anyone who is not chosen, then, somehow unrighteous or capricious? This is a ridiculous notion, and it’s one that the apostle Paul dispels without question:

“Now we know that whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be justified in His sight by works of the Law. For the Law merely brings awareness of sin.

But now, apart from the Law, the righteousness of God has been revealed, as attested by the Law and the Prophets. And this righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:19-24)

To say that everyone or even anyone “deserves” grace, which is unmerited by definition, is something that defies the very meaning of grace. So, what Munoz overlooks is that demanded grace cannot be called “grace” any longer; all it could ever be is something that is offered by compulsion.

But neither is the unqualified receipt of love a part of the ontological nature of humans, as though to be a human creature is to necessarily be a recipient of love from anyone, especially a holy God. Perhaps this lack of love might leave a human unsatisfied (à la Maslow), but a lack of love from others or from deity itself certainly does not mean that one has lost personhood.

And it is with this fundamental misunderstanding of Unconditional Election that Munoz readies his final critique, which looks at the idea of Total Depravity. I will respond to this in my next post and then begin to fully wrap up this series.

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