This is the fourth of a series of articles by Dr. Cox, with a Biblical critique of Calvinism drawn in part from his book Not One Little Child.
Teachings espousing a limited freewill simply do not square either with Scripture or with life experience. Man does have options, both godly and ungodly (Prov. 1:29). Regarding election, Thom Rainer says that anyone who is lost forfeits salvation because of his or her own disobedience, not because of election or predestination.1 He acknowledges that a tension exists between humanity’s freewill and God’s sovereign choice and asserts that election is a sovereign, eternal decree from God which involves the choice of people to be the recipients of grace and salvation.2 I am comfortable saying that if election is understood as to service, it is extended to some; but if election is understood as to salvation, it is extended to all.
Rainer says election means to mark out beforehand, but rightly adds that this does not absolve humanity of the clear mandate to receive Christ and make disciples.3 John Newport declares that one aspect of mankind being created in the image of God is the gift of reason, and with it the power of reasonable choice, that is to say the ability to decide for ourselves.4 Fisher Humphreys argues that no Scripture should be interpreted to mean that God chooses any person for condemnation.5 McGrath asserts that, like the invalid at the pool of Bethesda, mankind is given the privilege of accepting or rejecting God’s cure for sin (John 5:6).6
McGrath further maintains that it takes two to make a relationship, and unless man says “Yes” to God, that relationship remains unfulfilled, for God has given mankind the immense privilege of saying “no” to Him.7 McGrath declares that God treats humans as persons, not as objects.8 ….*
A walk through the Old Testament demonstrates that mankind has a freewill and exercises it in every facet of human existence. Moses asserted this exercising of the freewill regarding choice of spouse (Gen. 24:5), contributions to God (Exod. 35:5), the offering of sacrifices to God (Lev. 1:3), and the presenting of peace offerings to God (Lev. 19:5). He again stated that sacrifices were offered according to the will of man (Lev. 22:19), and that thanksgiving sacrifices were offered at the will of man (Lev. 22:29). The inspired Chronicler proclaimed that God wants man to have a willing mind, but it is up to man (1 Chron. 28:9), and that God entreats man to consecrate himself, but man must be willing (1 Chron. 29:5). Isaiah declared that man must be willing to obey God (Isa. 1:19).
Perhaps one of the most famous passages in all the Old Testament regarding human options and God’s sovereignty is the one found in Jer. 18:1-12, which many recognize as the potter and the clay text. Jeremiah argued that both the potter and the clay are involved in shaping the clay into the vessel it will become. Moreover, this passage of Scripture may be the greatest text in the Old Testament for explaining the conditional nature of prophecies and purposes. While God’s nature never changes, nor does He repent in the human sense, His purposes, quite obviously, can be altered according to the moral and ethical decisions of man.
Notice in Jer. 18:1-3 that God speaks through ordinary occurrences. The potter had a purpose in mind and it is good, not evil, because God is good and not evil (Jer. 18:3). No good potter designs bad vessels intentionally. Human options are available. Also, we know that it is not God’s will that man murder man, nor is it God’s will that man steal from man, neither is it God’s will that man go to hell. Although man does not always choose to do so, the highest wisdom of man is to seek the potter’s good purpose. But there is the possibility of perverting the potter’s purpose.
Jeremiah 18:4-12 explains that the sovereign God works through free people. Man is free to choose sin or salvation (Jer. 18:4). The spoiling of the clay is not due to the potter’s mistake. Any spoiling is due to the stubbornness of the clay as it resists the potter’s touch, thus, man can resist God’s will. There would be little use in praying “Thy will be done” if it were already happening. But, thankfully, the potter can remake the vessel (Jer. 18:4); however, in order to do so the potter must crush the clay and start over. Additionally, Jeremiah knew that the stubbornness of sin hardens and hardening brings wrath (Jer. 19:11). God’s is a sovereignty that responds to the will of humans (Jer. 18:5-12). When He plans to pour out wrath upon people because of their evil, He alters His plans when they repent (Jer. 18:8). God remains willing to reshape the destiny of nations and individuals if they repent (Jer. 18:8). When He plans to bless, He alters His plans when they are disobedient (Jer. 18:10). God does not so much change His mind as He changes His plan (Jer. 18:8, 10). God’s actions, then, are conditioned by the moral behavior of mankind. Prophecy is not causative but morally conditioned whether stated or unstated. Evil action forfeits the rights to the fulfillment of a promise. In the case of Israel, an obedient remnant would receive fulfillment of the promises. So, the unlimited power of God is exercised according to man’s conduct not according to an unchangeable determination.9
Jeremiah further asserted that God does not afflict man willingly (Lam. 3:33). Daniel observed the freeness of the human will when he declared that the King of Persia would rule as he pleased (Dan. 11:3). And, Hosea announced that nations and people choose willingly to live as they do (Hos. 5:11).
Jonah 1:1-3 is another excellent Old Testament example of the exercising of the human will in direct opposition to God’s revealed will. The Bible says that the word of the Lord came to Jonah (Jon. 1:1). We are not told how the word came. Was it audible, written, or was Jonah simply stirred from within? Regardless of the medium, Jonah knew what it was. Ironically, the historical drama of the prophet Jonah somewhat parallels the factual drama of the nation of Israel in that both the nation of Israel and the prophet Jonah had been selected for the task of delivering God’s word to the world (Gen. 12:1-3). Jonah’s resentment toward the all-inclusive scope of God’s love reflects the narrow exclusivity of any who would restrict the range of God’s saving grace only to an elect few. God wants to show mercy to all and He wants to bless all. Believers are told to go and be His witnesses, even to those who drove the nails into the hands of Jesus and to the one who pierced His side with a spear, that they all might repent and believe (Acts 1:8). Jonah is commanded —— the words are imperatives -—to arise, go to Nineveh, and preach against it (Jon. 1:2). The idolatry (fertility cult), self-confident pride (Isa. 10:13), and cruelty to others (Nah. 3:1, 10, 19) practiced by the inhabitants of Nineveh had reached God’s limit. In that Jonah was commanded to preach against the city, the threatening nature of the message becomes obvious. Jonah was to announce imminent judgment, leaving to the conscience of each listener to judge why it was coming.10 When the cry of wickedness goes up to God, the cry of judgment comes down to man.
Nineveh was a principal city of Assyria (Gen. 10:11-12) whose oldest discovered remains date to ca. 4500 B.C.11 Assyria had waned in military superiority but was regaining power. It was to these hated, oppressive people that God commanded Jonah to go and preach, some fifty years before Assyria’s invasion of the Northern Kingdom in about 722-21 B.C. Jonah’s assignment was not just for the good of Assyria but also served to shame Israel, in that a heathen nation would repent as a result of one sermon from one prophet, whereas Israel and Judah had heard many sermons from many prophets without repenting. However, even with the knowledge of God’s will and the awareness of the spiritual needs of the Ninevites, Jonah fled from God’s presence. He exercised his option.
Did Jonah really think he could escape from the presence of the Lord? No, he knew better, for in Jon. 1:9 he admitted that God was Lord of heaven, that God made the sea and the land, and fully believed that God was capable of destroying distant cities like Nineveh. “Fleeing from the presence of the Lord” is metaphorical language only. “Standing in the presence of the Lord” was also a figure of speech indicating a special position of service to God (2 Chron. 29:11). What a horrible thought: Jonah chose to resign his position as a prophet rather than be obedient. Jonah was attempting to escape his duty.
In all the other books of the prophets the reader encounters faithful men whose sole intent was to proclaim ardently the word of God which turns mankind to repentance, but not with Jonah, at least not here. Voluntary obedience to the leadership of God is essential for the well-being of man. Nevertheless, God could have turned to someone else, but did not.
Jonah set out on a journey. To go to Nineveh? No way! Nineveh was only 500 miles northeast of Israel. He went toward the Palestinian coast to catch a ship headed to Tarshish! The human will can resist God’s will. Ironically, some yearn to know the will of God in order to do it, while others already know the will of God and spurn it. Many Bible scholars think that Tarshish was in Spain, if so, this is the opposite direction (west) of where God told Jonah to go (east) and was as far away as he could get from God’s will! Does going the opposite direction sound familiar? He put as much distance as possible between him and Nineveh, implying that he wanted nothing to do with the assignment and that he wanted as far away as possible from God’s destructive action. He expected a God-bomb to be dropped on Nineveh and he wanted it to happen.
No one really knows for sure where Tarshish is, although most of us have been there — the exact opposite of what God wants! Jonah did what many do today when it comes to Christian responsibility — run, hide, or quit. Jonah found a ship headed opposite of where God wanted him to go and the Bible says he “paid the fare.” What an understatement! Did he ever pay, and with more than money! He would pay dearly with endangering the lives of others, suicidal tendencies, the terror of darkness in a fish’s belly, the stench of the same, and the damage to his body caused by the digestive secretions in the fish’s stomach. Carnal (fleshly), renegade believers cannot rebel against God without incurring His disciplinary chastisement. Jonah “paid the fare” all right, and dearly. He boarded the ship in disobedience to God, being quite willing to suffer the inescapable vengeance of heaven rather than evangelize the Ninevites. He knew how hideously cruel and barbaric the Assyrians were in war, wrenching out the tongues of enemies, flaying people alive and then stretching out their skins on city walls to terrify and leave lasting fears. When he heard that Nineveh would be destroyed he leaped for joy! Jonah feared that God’s mercy would spare the Ninevites, so he decided that he would rather die than have thousands of Assyrian converts. Jonah wished to escape, not beyond God’s presence, but beyond God’s service. The will of God was intolerable to him. Thus we poignantly learn that obedience to God demands renunciation of prejudices and of the lust for vengeance upon enemies, and requires letting the mind and will be shaped in accordance with God’s mind and will. Jonah chose to refuse his God-given assignment and it almost cost him his life. Nevertheless, he had an option and he exercised it.
Further, Jon. 3:9-10 reiterates what we saw in Jer. 18 regarding God changing His plan in response to man’s choices. The King of Nineveh was unsure how God might react to city-wide repentance. “Who knows?” he asked. “Perhaps God will turn and relent.” “Maybe he will withdraw his burning anger so that we might not perish.” The Ninevites were uncertain how faith and repentance would be received by God, whereas we know most assuredly the results these produce. But what happened? The answer is found in Jon. 3:10. The Lord spared Nineveh. God saw their deeds. Notice also that their repentance was demonstrated by deeds, not just by words. God saw that they genuinely turned from wickedness. Thus, God got what He wanted from them and no animal sacrifices were even necessary, only broken and contrite hearts. The Bible says that God changed His mind concerning the destruction He was about to bring. This means that God heaved a sigh of relief. His greatest desire is not to destroy man but to save him. Hence, God’s actions are conditional based upon what man does or does not do. When we opt to repent, God is effectively relieved of His obligation to punish our sin and He is cleared to do what He longs to do — show mercy. God delights in showing mercy to the penitent. He can deal either gently or harshly with man, for both are in His repertoire. In Jon. 3:10 God rescinded His order of destruction because the people repented, thus God changes His mind as man changes his manners through faith and repentance.
So, both Jeremiah and Jonah underscored a significant fact about God: He is more concerned with moral and ethical responses than the literal fulfillment of promises, and will, in fact, alter those prophecies in accordance with man’s behavioral choices which are borne out of faith and repentance. It is far better that Jonah be embarrassed over his prophecy not coming to pass than that a repentant soul be sent to hell! God offers man and woman a new start. You have only to turn to him in repentance, faith, and obedience! The Old Testament certainly declares that mankind has options and may choose them, even if they are not what God wills, but woe to those who opt to rebuff God.
The next article in this series will explore the New Testament Scriptures teaching the optional nature of the gospel invitation.
1Thom S. Rainer, The Book of Church Growth: History Theology, and Principles (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 140.
4John P. Newport, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview: Conflict and Dialogue (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 440.
5Fisher Humphreys, and Paul E. Robertson. God So Loved the World: Traditional Baptists and Calvinism (New Orleans, LA: Insight Press, 2000), 50.
6Alister E. McGrath, Justification by Faith: What It Means to Us Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1988), 19.
9C.F. Keil, and F. Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, Jeremiah, by C. F. Keil, vol. 8. trans. James Kennedy (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., reprint, 1986), 295.
10H. L. Ellison, Jonah, in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 7, Daniel – Minor Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985), 369.
SBCToday’s editorial team has conferred regarding a couple of sentences in Dr. Michael Cox’s post on July 27 titled “A Biblical Critique of Calvinism Part 2a: Old Testament Scriptures Teaching the Optional Nature of the Gospel Invitation.”
While we agree that the analogy was intended by Dr. Cox to be illustrative of a significant point, we also are aware that the comparison presented significant offense to others. We must note that, the analogy is not original with Dr. Cox (see CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, works by Norman Geisler and RC Sproul). Further, we have no desire to be insensitive to others — especially if the analogy is personal — nor do we want to diminish the informative treatise by Dr. Cox.
To those who moved past the analogy and conversed about other salient points in Dr. Cox’s post, we are grateful. But for those who were offended by the two sentences in question, we offer our sincerest apology to you and ask for your forgiveness. We deeply regret any negative impact; and to illustrate our genuine lament in this matter, we have removed the analogy and the sentence subsequent to it.