Margin notes: Things I scribbled in the white spaces on 10/2/2K9 – Does “if” really exist in a universe where God is truly sovereign?


questionMatthew 11:20-24 (ESV) Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. 24But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.”

Among the issues in theology which can give one a brain cramp, this one ranks right at the top: How a sovereign God can use the word “if”? “If” is a word, and a concept which Jesus clearly builds the rebuke in our text upon. It shows up in many other Scripture passages as well. So how are we to think in terms of “possibility” or something which may or may not happen, in light of the revelation both of God’s omniscience and sovereignty over all things?

Typically there are two responses to this issue.

First, are those who, to varying degrees simply deny God’s sovereignty and/or knowledge and thus postulate that God either does not know all things, or that He does not have or exercise power in all things. The most recent manifestation of this form of thought is to be found in the thinking of what is called “Open-Theism” or “Openness-Theism.” In this system, God does not know everything. He grows and learns as we do. “If” exists exactly the same for Him as it does for us. He cannot know the free choices of men (for instance) before they themselves actually make those choices, and so He has to wait for them to come to pass to get certain knowledge of them just like you and me. The result is, God is stripped of some aspect of His revealed transcendence. God in a very sense can become a reacitve victim in His own universe, and become captive to the fallen wills of mankind.

The opposite approach (most often taken by orthodox Christians) is to deny any real notion of possibility or “if” at all. And when this happens, our doctrines of sovereignty and omniscience begin to border upon (if not cross over into) fatalism. The problem here is that it completely obliterates man’s moral responsibility before God. There is no category for true disobedience because everything that happens, is simply God’s will. It isn’t long before we make God the author of sin. And we do not know then how to respond to sin and evil either within us or around us. “Whatever will be, will be” becomes the overarching thought. So urgency in evangelization goes out the window – after all, if God wants to save them, He will. And things like our own struggles with indwelling sin fail to arouse any action on our part, since we cannot overcome sin until God sovereignly acts – right? Wrong.

Let’s try to bring this down to its root. In the first instance, the attempt is to make God subject to our realm of time and space. And in the second, the attempt if to make us live in God’s realm outside of time and space – where we rightly belong. Both then fail to recognize that while God Himself lives outside of time and space – eliminating any sense of “if”, of probablity or possibility for Him – we do not. We live within time and space and possibility is VERY real for us. Hence Jesus’ rebuke here. “If” then plays a major role in Jesus’ letters to the Churches in Revelation 2 & 3, because it exists for us, and He condescends to deal with us and interact with us in a very real give-and-take dynamic in our realm, even while existing in His own above it all. When WE try to blur these distinctions, or make them all one, we cannot help but err in any number of ways. “If”, doesn’t exist for God, but it does for us. Luke 13:3 (ESV) “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Jeremiah 26:3 (ESV) “It may be they will listen, and every one turn from his evil way, that I may relent of the disaster that I intend to do to them because of their evil deeds.” These are real possibilities for us. Let us live that way.

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3 thoughts on “Margin notes: Things I scribbled in the white spaces on 10/2/2K9 – Does “if” really exist in a universe where God is truly sovereign?

  1. The if-then scenario you have described has two flaws:

    1. behind it all is a purpose-of-speech argument that presupposes a will-neutral speech put out by God in which the hearer can pick what God Says as truth if they so desire ..or not. How can you have freedom of action and thus the if-then scenario as resulting from a communication from God –that you have described– unless the medium of communication between God and man is will-neutral / non-interfering-with-free willed-obedience? You can’t. Your description only makes sense if God is not His Word and His Word has the same non-creating/weak quality of non-creating speech/non-logos.

    Your description does not take into account the distinction between the Word of God as Logos/Spirit and Life and non-creating speech. God is His Word and creates what He says. ( and the Word was God.. the Word became flesh..) He creates obedience in those He intends to be obedient and closes the ears of the rest –and says so. ( He has plastered their ears.. that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand.., etc..” God picks who hears. ) Your scenario in which an if-then situation of free willed/agency obedience can occur implicitly says all ears are equally open and denies that God IS His Word as Creating Speech ( takes the Creating character out of God as Word and equates Him with the same speech in which lies can be spoken and the common sense of non-creating speech and its limitations ) and also affirms as a stealth doctrine the Catholic dogma that ‘God has to speak to man in human language’ which should really be more fully stated as “we can’t say men have free will AND that God is His Word or we look like the liars we are so we’ll say He is not His Word but has to communicate with us in a medium in which free will at least MIGHT exist”. You may or may not be aware of that.

    You have functionally denied the power of the Word of God by denying the distinction between the Logos and non-creating speech and sought to common sense out an argument that honors God within a lie that you probably did not realize.

    2. In denying that God created and actively creates evil ( and says so ( as in.. I am Jehovah and there is none else .. I make peace and create evil.. and ‘without Him there was not anything made that was made ) and in fact IS the author of sin, you deny the true omniscience and omnipotence of God. ( for the creature was made subject to vanity..not of its own will.) That argument “in favor of God” that also says God couldn’t have created evil basically goes that God cannot create something outside of His Own character –that He is limited that way because “He cannot lie”. In fact, He created an entire other speech ( non-creating speech/anti-Christ) in which lies are spoken and saves/saved us out of it as part of our salvation and new birth. Your argument has the appearance of honoring God’s reputation before free willed creatures who must choose Him –or not — and that the choice exists at all and is based on personal advantage to themselves. But there is no free will, no choice, no sale, no need for the intellectual apparatus of the sale and in truth, the fact that God did and does create things that are not part or reflective of His Own character proves He is indeed all powerful and unrestrained in the use of that power.

    Otherwise you are left in dualism with a “Good God/Bad God” dichotomy that makes you subject to all sorts of erring doctrines simply to keep up the reputation of God for people who are idealized to be able to choose Him and need some particular motivation to do so..which you have done..

    As for the “doing away with the gospel imperative” dodge, the only thing God prevents us from doing is FALSE evangelism ( arminianism) and even real evangelism until He wants it. Nowhere in the Bible does God Say “Unless you are preaching the gospel 24/7 365 you are wrong!” But there is “I sent them not, yet they ran..”

    Fatalism is being in the cycle of proud/vain-to-be-hopeless of arminian/free willer/satanic doctrine that goes “I’ve got free will. But so do all the other people in the world. They collectively have so much more free will than I do I am comparatively powerless. Therefore I can do nothing.” It is also to be found in arminian/free willer/satanic/Marxian “determinism” that goes “because men have free will and live in an environment of perpetually limited resources ( see the denial of God as Creating Word in the idealized perpetuity of limited resources?) certain rules arise out a struggle for those limited resources that are unknown to the participants ( idealized as free willed men) but none-the-less Rule Over Them as an artifact of their being in perpetually limited circumstances. Those rules effectively manufacture an ‘unseen hand’ that is Determinism that never changes. The study of those rules is called Social Science. We are geniuses and it is the darned Calvinists who are the real Fatalists when they deny the foundations of our ideological scare tactics!”

    peace brother. Those same traps in which you have been snared have been around for many centuries and have a long history. Pray about ..just getting rid of them in our generation. Who needs them? God can do anything through us and still always be Himself.

    Isaiah 45:7 I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.

    Romans 9:18-26 Therefore hath he mercy on whom he will have mercy, and whom he will he hardeneth. Thou wilt say then unto me, Why doth he yet find fault? For who hath resisted his will? Nay but, O man, who art thou that repliest against God? Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour? What if God, willing to shew his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction: And that he might make known the riches of his glory on the vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory, Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? As he saith also in Osee, I will call them my people, which were not my people; and her beloved, which was not beloved. And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God.

    timothy

    In the Name of Jesus Christ, Amen

  2. Thanks for stopping by and commenting Timothy. I’ll try to address several of your concerns. I’ll preface my comments with RAF:

    Timothy wrote: The if-then scenario you have described has two flaws:

    1. behind it all is a purpose-of-speech argument that presupposes a will-neutral speech put out by God in which the hearer can pick what God Says as truth if they so desire ..or not. How can you have freedom of action and thus the if-then scenario as resulting from a communication from God –that you have described– unless the medium of communication between God and man is will-neutral / non-interfering-with-free willed-obedience? You can’t. Your description only makes sense if God is not His Word and His Word has the same non-creating/weak quality of non-creating speech/non-logos…You have functionally denied the power of the Word of God by denying the distinction between the Logos and non-creating speech and sought to common sense out an argument that honors God within a lie that you probably did not realize.

    RAF: a. There is no presupposition of “will-neutral” speech. No one is “will-neutral, nor does God address anyone as they are. The Fall presupposes all men’s wills bound in sin, and God’s will eternally and immutably predisposed to holiness. What is being observed in the Biblical record is that God’s will functions on more than one level. A clear statement of God’s will would be “Thou shalt not kill” – as it is in the Decalog and given as an expression of God’s will for mankind’s behavior. And, in actual fact, men defy this statement of His will regarding our behavior every day. It would seem that you have no ability to distinguish between God’s immutable decrees and the His will as stated by precept which men can and do disobey – and for which they are morally culpable. We must take seriously the “if/then” statements in Scripture seriously – and all the more so when such statements are made by God Himself. The language is there and our interpretive grid cannot simply do away with it to satisfy our system. The notion of fee will (what we mean when we use the term) has to be defined. No where in Scripture does man have the ability to will beyond his nature. Now that that nature is fallen, man’s is completely trapped in sin unless supernaturally freed by the Spirit. No one is arguing differently. But this is the point – man’s problem is MORAL. He does not WANT or love God, which is why he “cannot” chose righteously. Nevertheless, he is responsible because it is his will which is the problem – and not something external to himself preventing him.

    Timothy: 2. In denying that God created and actively creates evil ( and says so ( as in.. I am Jehovah and there is none else .. I make peace and create evil.. and ‘without Him there was not anything made that was made ) and in fact IS the author of sin…

    RAF: Your statement here would be considered out and out heresy by all orthodox standards Timothy. I would beg you to reconsider. Your use of the Isaiah passage without qualification regarding what is calamitous (evil) from the human point of view of pain and suffering, and what is MORAL evil – as in sinning itself is what leads to this error. It is contrary to other clear descriptions of God.”shall not the Lord of all the earth do right?” “God is light, in and Him is no darkness at all.” “God cannot be tempted with evil neither does He tempt any man.” Such a fundamental error concerning the nature of god cannot help but produce the skewed views you’ve presented here. This is most unfortunate. There is no cosmic dualism as you fear. But God is not evil, nor can He do evil.

    Timothy: As for the “doing away with the gospel imperative” dodge, the only thing God prevents us from doing is FALSE evangelism ( arminianism) and even real evangelism until He wants it. Nowhere in the Bible does God Say “Unless you are preaching the gospel 24/7 365 you are wrong!” But there is “I sent them not, yet they ran..”
    RAF: There is no scare tactic in understanding the ramifications of having God’s commission in our hands, and then failing to execute it. Does this require some sort of strange “24/7 365” Gospelizing? We understand it happens within providential parameters. And, we understand we have a clear responsibility to be about God’s business and His children and ambassadors. There’s no dodge here – there is the reality that God uses the means of preaching the Gospel to gather in the elect, and that the preaching of the Gospel of the Cross is to be carried to every living creature and that the high honor of this is placed squarely in the hands of His Church. What will we answer if we do not obey?

    Timothy: Fatalism is being in the cycle of proud/vain-to-be-hopeless of arminian/free willer/satanic doctrine that goes “I’ve got free will…

    RAF: I am afraid your concept of fatalism is just flatly incorrect. Fatalism as a philosophy and as a practical concept utterly denies free will. That’s why it is called fatalism. No matter what one thinks or does, they are bound by blind fate which determines all things irrespective of what people think or do. God does not interact with us in a fatalistic paradigm, even though He is absolutely sovereign in all things. Here is a divine mystery indeed. Man acts and makes his choices based upon his fallen nature and the capacity of his will to do (which will does not have the capacity to choose righteousness nor righteously) AND God’s decretive will is ultimately carried out. Man acting in his own sinfulness and freely choosing evil while disobeying God’s Lordship, nevertheless carrying out His secret will – and all the while being held responsible because they acted out of sinful motives. Our construct must account for all of those dynamics in order to do justice to the Biblical account. I will leave my comments with one of the most notable of those accounts clearly explicating the construct I’ve described. It is from Isa. 10 – and I will highlight with brief comments to explain:

    5 Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury!
    RAF: Wicked, godless Assyria is called the rod of God’s anger. This is in relation to their impending attack on Judah.

    6 Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
    RAF: The “godless nation” here is Judah. God is sending the wicked to attack Judah.

    7 But he does not so intend, and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few;
    RAF: How is this happening? Is Assyria simply “obeying” God? She “does not so INTEND”. She is acting our of her own wicked heart – because it is in her fallen heart to destroy.

    12 When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. 13 For he says: “By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones. 14 My hand has found like a nest the wealth of the peoples; and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.”
    RAF: When Gods’ chastening work is done THROUGH Assyria, God will then punish her, because she was not acting out of service to God, but out of sinful motives. Therefore, she is held responsible for her sinful actions – even though they were ordained by God in His righteous chastening of Judah. She is still responsible for she acted freely in her wickedness. God then goes on to say one day He will restore Judah, and utterly destroy Assyria for her sin – because she remains responsible for acting out of sin, even though it accomplished part of God’s will (as concerns Judah) while disobeying God’s revealed will in acting brutally.

  3. Sorry Timothy – I deleted your second post because I will not allow the blog to be used to advance such incoherent and un-Biblical views. If you would like to write me off-line, I will be glad to enter into some dialog – but your attempt to make God the author of evil and to remove any real categories for true human disobedience and moral responsibilities are better argued some place else.

    May you at last find the truth as it is in Christ Jesus.

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