This post will give more detail on the third of my complaints against those expound on predestination. The complaint is that they sometimes (not always) present the invitation to believe in Christ as superficial or insincere.
If we believe that Jesus’s death, resurrection, and the proclamation of his name throughout the world is insufficient to permit men to be saved, we have a real problem. The problem is that when the gospel goes out, it sounds for all the world like God means it to do something which we deny it has the ability to do. The evangelist says “Repent!” and we say the hearer can’t respond. The apostle says “Believe!” and we say, alas, they can not.
If some secret extra ingredient must be provided by God in order for men to believe, then the gospel message is only a disingenuous invitation. This really makes God look like a liar. It’s as if he beckons to the sinner, indeed commands the sinner to repent, but does not permit the sinner the strength to obey. This can not be. Surely, if God is anything, he is sincere.
The simpler explanation is that the gospel invitation stands open to all who hear. Anyone who so chooses may repent and believe. In fact, the gospel says exactly this.
And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.
I can no sooner deny this scripture and others like it than I can deny the ones that speak of God choosing those who will be saved. As I said in the introduction to this series, I am not at all certain that free will contradicts predestination. I am very certain that the bible gives us the truth about the relationship between God and man.
What leads one man to trust in Christ while another refuses? When it comes to a decision of this magnitude, it would be impossible to lay out all our reasons for or against. One person may want to keep faith with his parents, another may want to rebel against them. Both may wish to keep faith with their parents, but one man might have atheist parents. One person might prefer to wallow in despair rather than to accept forgiveness. Someone else might prefer to follow after worldly success. Some might believe at the first hearing, other might refuse again and again, before finally receiving Christ. These are all relatable human experiences and desires. These are the sorts of things that each of us wrestles with in making our decisions. If we believe that people choose, as I do, to follow Christ, these sorts of considerations must be part of the deciding.
And do we not see similar decision-making in the bible? Think of the rich young man who went away sorrowing when Jesus told him to give everything away and follow Christ, or the Jewish religious leaders repeatedly motivated by envy to oppose the will of God. Think of how many people were saved in the book of Acts because the man of the house accepted Christ, or how Timothy inherited his faith, so to speak, from his mother and grandmother. Is Timothy’s faith false because is got it from his dear mother? Is the rich man not to blame for choosing riches over Christ? He was after all very rich!
In the case of the rich man who refused to follow Christ, we could consider two hypotheticals that might change the decision. First, suppose the man had been less rich, suppose he had been ruined financially the day before. We can’t say whether the man would have followed Christ if he’d had less to give up, but perhaps he would. Remember that Jesus took this occasion as an opportunity to discuss the power that wealth often exerts over its owners. We can’t confidently answer the hypothetical, but the narrative does point us in that direction.
The second hypothetical is to suppose the situation was the same but the man was different. Just suppose that it was actually someone else in the same position. Might someone else have chosen differently? Moses was one man who gave up quite a lot to follow God’s will.
He [Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.
Hebrews 11:26 ESV
It seems silly to suggest that there is some amount of riches that no one could resist. Of course we can’t confidently say that any particular person would have made different decision in identical circumstances. But if choosing means anything, it at least means that someone else might have chosen differently.
Now you and I can’t observe what might have happened if things had been different. We don’t see hearts, we only see actions. But there is one fascinating instance where the bible gives us the answer to a counter-factual, what-if scenario. Jesus himself tells us what might have been.
Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not: Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
In the same passage Jesus also says the men of Sodom would have repented if they had seen Jesus’ miracles. In the next chapter of Matthew, the lord points how the people of Ninevah repented at the preaching of Jonah, which was less impressive than the ministry of Christ himself.
Before you wave this away and start inventing objections, allow me to point out a few things. Jesus meant something by these statements. He meant to show how evil was the generation of Jews that killed him. He does this by comparing them to particular groups of gentiles. If we somehow say that he did not mean to tell us that the gentiles would have responded differently, how then does his statement retain any force? If we think of some clever way to say that the gentiles would not really have responded differently, how does that not overturn the lord’s point? The Jews of Jesus’ generation can’t be worse than other men if they are not worse than other men.
It also tells us, at the same time, that at least some of the people who will stand condemned in the day of judgment would have repented if they had different experiences in their lifetimes. Perhaps we would be more comfortable not knowing that, but there it is. The bible does not leave us to guess. One man may make a different decision than another man, and the same man may make a different decision under different circumstances.
Two consequences naturally follow from this. First, that we can not judge ourselves better than others simply because we have accepted Christ and they have not. Others (we can not know who) would have accepted him, had they lived our lives, and we may have rejected him, had we lived other lives. Second, we ought to care how we treat other people. We should care whether we make Christ known, or cause the unbelievers to blaspheme because of our sin. We should pray that God would have more and more mercy upon our neighbors, and that he would stretch forth his hand to do miracles that will draw souls to Christ.
If you asked me, “is there anyone that God can’t save? Is anyone so unreachable that God could not persuade them?” I would not dare to say yes. How could I? When a few words from some servants turned Naaman back to obey the prophet, or when Nebuchadnezzar was forced by miraculous circumstance to acknowledge God, or when I read how Jesus himself confronted a notorious anti-Christian on the road to Damascus, how can I say anyone is beyond God’s reach?
The invitation is real. But who knows how many times one will hear? Who knows how God will arrange circumstances to persuade someone to trust in Christ? But if they hear only once, even if it is on the worst day and the last day of their life, the offer is sincere. Whosoever shall call upon the name of the lord shall be saved.