Friday, May 10, 2013

Fallen from God's favor

Last night I had a conversation with some good friends about meriting God's favor. In the end we all agreed that the language of "meriting" God's favor, even if it's being used in the narrow sense of pleasing God, is not wise in our current christian climate because it gives the impression that salvation can be earned. However, for those who know me personally, it probably won't come as a surprise that I had some lingering concerns about our current christian climate, and in particular the concern that christians shouldn't talk or think as though doing things -- literally any things -- could either decrease or increase God's favor upon an individual, especially christian individuals. This whole conversation arose from a study in Galatians chapter five. 

In Galatians chapter five, Paul speaks adamantly toward those Gentile christians within the Galatian church who are considering to accept the rite of circumcision on the terms of the "Juidaizers" who "wanted to distort the gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:7) by teaching that God only justifies sinners in virtue of the Mosaic Covenant with Israel, through "works of the (Mosaic) Law." This first century controversy, in effect, convinced the Christian Gentiles of Galatia to voluntarily place themselves under the Old Covenant, thereby identifying themselves with the covenant-people of Israel, in order to receive a righteous standing before God; and that is patently false and contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ and justification through faith in him alone (Gal. 2:15-21; Eph. 2:1-10). Paul even describes this particular worldview of judaism with which he was personally familiar as though it were a pagan and idolatrous system of worship that enslaved the human heart instead of freeing it (Gal. 4:8-11, 21-31; 5:1). And yet, after all of this contention with insidious Judaizers and the proselytes to Judaism which they nurtured and developed in Galatia, Paul declares emphatically that those Gentiles who have become tangled within this controversy and honestly think they are being justified by the Mosaic Law and its stipulated works "have fallen away from grace" (Gal. 5:4).

Now, in our current Christian climate, it is presumed that Paul did not truly believe that a Christian could fall away from God's grace, because that would imply a loss of salvation -- a salvation which was granted unconditionally. In other words, it is presumed that Paul was serious in the tone of his warning but not in the actual content of his warning. That is to say, Paul is speaking rhetorically for the effect of appearing threatening, but the propositional threat itself was not true. That, to me, seems more like an idle threat than good rhetoric. And under such urgent circumstances like the situation in Galatia, an idle threat would not only be foolish, it would also be useless. These Christian Gentiles cannot have possibly fallen away from something that they did not have. In this case, it's God's favor

The most logical inference of this allegedly "idle" threat is that previously these Gentiles had been viewed as having obtained God's favor. In other words, they had been viewed as Christians by the Apostle Paul, and other Christians within the church of Galatia believed they were Christians too. And one of the benefits of that Christian faith is they had received God's favor. Paul thought they had received God's favor. They thought they did too.  If they didn't think that, Paul's warning would be absolutely meaningless. And it is that position of favor from which Paul says they "have fallen away from" (aorist active indicative of ekpipto) God's favor or "grace."

The apostle Peter speaks this way also in one of his letters. He says, "You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose (ekpipto) your own stability" (2 Pet. 3:17). The author of Hebrews is even more explicit in his language: 
Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? (Heb. 10:28-29) 

It seems to me that the apostles of our Lord Jesus christ were not speaking hypothetically when they described the certainty of God's promised, decreasing favor upon those who had been sanctified by the blood of His covenant and had outraged the Spirit of grace (i.e. the Spirit of favor).  Similarly, Paul speaks to the Colossian Christians as though they too could fall away from some kind of relationship with Jesus Christ. In Colossians 1:21-23, he writes:
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.
In Paul's letter to the Gentile congregation in Rome, he writes concerning the covenant-body of Israel:
They [the covenant body of Israel] were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God's kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. (Rom. 11:20-21)

The very clear inference of these statements by Paul is that the Gentiles who once were alienated and hostile in their minds toward God have now been graciously brought into a relationship with God where they (perceivably) are no longer hostile to God in their minds and are no longer alienated from God. Yet, Paul still speaks as though they were able, in some sense, to become lax, unstable, and irresolute in their faith, shifting away from the hope of the gospel that they heard and (apparently) received with favor. A few verses later (Col. 1:28) Paul states that all men need to heed this "warning" of God's gospel: "Him [that is, Jesus] we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ." The obvious implication of this "warning" is that these identifiable Christians could "shift from" the hope of the gospel, at which time God's warning would be appropriately given to them -- that warning being the promise of God's hostility toward them, the deliverance from which they did not deserve in the first place. And if the sovereign kindness of God placed the people of Israel into a covenant relationship with Him, and He eventually did not spare them, allowing them to "fall" because of their unbelief and pride, how much more is God's warning appropriate for Gentiles who receive God's kindness and yet are tempted to do the same?

It seems to me that in some sense, God's kindness can be diminished with those who are in covenant with Him. If this is true, one logical implication would be that God's kindness could also increase with those who are in covenant with Him. 

Now, I realize that in our current Christian climate, especially among "Baptistic" and "Calvinistic" circles of Christianity, it is likely that I will be accused of being Arminian, Palagian, semi-Palagian, and possibly even a total pagan for believing that Christians in covenant with God can do things which increase or decrease God's favor. That would mean, or so they might think, that Jesus does not cover all of their sins, or that Christ only covers their sins intermittently (covering them and uncovering them, and covering them back up again, etc.). But is that really true? Must we deny substitutionary atonement by affirming that God's favor upon His covenant people can increase or decrease depending on their faithfulness? It seems to me that no matter which Christian tradition we come from, both substitutionary atonement for Christians and the ability of Christians to fall away from God's favor are part of the clear language of God's Word; and first and foremost, as Christians, we ought to commit ourselves to the Word of God above all traditions. But does this mean that by accepting this peculiar biblical language about "falling away from grace" that other biblical doctrines are being compromised, even the doctrines of sovereign grace? Does this diminish God's sovereignty over all? Does this diminish the sinner's accountability to God one bit? Does this even imply that God is not worthy of our love, adoration, and respect? I don't believe so, and I'll tell you why. 

The language of God's Word also, and just as clearly, affirms that all men are completely dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1) and by nature children of wrath (Eph. 2:2-3) and enemies of God by their very nature (Rom. 5:10) through their legal covenantal union with the first Adam who fell into sin in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3; Hosea 6:7; Rom. 5:12-19). Because of their union with the first Adam they are by nature slaves of sin (Rom. 6:20). God's Word is also very clear that no man who is dead in his sins is righteous in himself (Rom. 3:9-20), or can do things in himself which merit God's favor, thereby causing or stimulate God to make him righteous or even to give him an alien righteousness. All men have fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23) and there is no one righteous, not so much as one (Rom. 3:10). Therefore the natural man, if he is to be righteous in God's sight at all, must be elected by God to partake of, and be covered by, His righteousness--the righteousness of the Righteous One (Rom. 3:19-26; 4:7; 5:1-21). 

Moreover, God does not base the foundation of His election on anything inherent within the individual sinner. God chooses to save sinners based on the gracious and kind intention of His own will (Eph. 1:4-8; Rom. 9:11). God's electing love, though sufficient for all and for all time, is for those whom God alone wills, and only for those whom He wills (John 6:37; 17:9). And because God has sovereignly, powerfully, and graciously saved a people for Himself, they have eternal security in Him (Rom. 8:1; John 10:27; I Cor. 10:13; Philip. 1:6).

And so, how does all of this fit together? How is the language of falling away from God's favor to be understood in light of God's favor originating and continuing from His completely sovereign grace?  

Are we to believe that God's favor is unlimited and static no matter what (that is to say, it doesn't move up or down or increase or decrease at all in time and history) for those who are in a covenant relationship with in Him? 

Are Christians, graciously placed within a covenant relationship with God, held to certain conditions which necessitate their faithful obedience, lest they fall away from God's favor?

I will gladly confess that it is a tremendous error to believe that spiritually dead men and enemies of God can do something to earn or "merit" God's favor in any sense. But is that true for those who are no longer spiritually dead and have been graciously placed within a covenant relationship with God? Is that true of people who are no longer considered God's enemies?  I get the funny feeling that Christians in our current climate get all flustered by this language because they equate a covenant relationship with God (something which contains blessings and curses and is objectively verifiable) as God's eternally electing, predestinating decree of salvation itself (something which man, in and of himself, could not possibly know because it's hidden within God's knowledge alone, Deut. 29:29). I also suspect that because such Christians don't want to attribute human perceptions of immorality to God (and His holy character), they don't like the thought of a God who would do such things as blessing them for obedience/faithfulness and cursing them for disobedience/faithlessness. They might think it's not "good" or "loving" or "gracious" for God to do that, especially if their righteous standing before God is because of the righteousness of another man who stands in their place (i.e. Jesus). 

But perhaps the most serious concern which stems from this apparent paradox is the thought that one could lose their regenerate or eternally elect status in God's sight if such things as covenant conditions (i.e. blessings and curses) were indeed true (and not just idle, hypothetical threats displayed for purely rhetorical purposes). The thought might be (i'm imagining) that no one can rest in any absolute assurance of salvation because God's covenant, through which he saves sinners, is conditional in some sense. And if it's conditional, after having already begun a work of regeneration, then one can lose his or her regeneration. Moreover, if it's conditional, God could not possibly predestine my eternal destiny, because it would change depending on something I do. 

Obviously, these apparent paradoxes are all serious concerns. And they all need to be addressed.

There is one thing Christians can be sure of, even when they are wrestling with this apparent paradox of "falling away from grace"; and that is the covenant faithfulness of God. God will always be faithful to the terms of His covenant with his people (Psa. 33:4; 36:5; 86:15; 89:1, 8; 115:1; Lam. 3:22-23; Rom. 3:3-4; I Cor. 1:9; 10:13; II Cor. 1:18; I John 1:9). But (and this is a big "but") if the terms of His covenant do include conditions, why would any professing "Christian" pretend as though His or her faithfulness will result in an eternal life in God's comfortable presence? In other words, why would a professing Christian presume that God's gracious covenant with them continues so that they could live sinfully? As the apostle Paul says, "Should we continue1in sin, that grace may abound?" (Rom. 6:1)?

In one of the following posts, I would like to offer a solution to this apparent paradox, but I can promise you that the solution won't be my own. In the following posts I would like to offer the solution presented by John Calvin, which was based upon his own study of God's Word. Now, I realize that our current climate of Christianity has many views, both pros and cons, concerning John Calvin the person and "Calvinism" as a theological think-tank, but I'm not going to offer a solution to this apparent paradox from our current "Calvinistic" climate. I'm going to offer John Calvin's own solution, which, as we'll see, is different from modern mainstream "Calvinistic" solutions. Stay tuned for those upcoming posts.

1.  The verb for "continue" in Rom. 6:1 is stated in the subjunctive mood, signifying possibility and potentiality. I prefer the HCSB translation which reads, "Should we continue...".  Other translations say "Are we to continue in sin?" (ESV), or "Shall we go on sinning..." (NIV). 

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