A God who doesn’t want to be found?

There are times where Jesus says something nice and heartwarming like, “For God so loved the world…” etc. etc.*

Then there are times when Jesus says something like this:

This is why I speak to them in parables . . . ‘Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’

This little aside comes near the start of a mini-marathon of parables in Matthew 13. After the first parable (the sower and the seeds), Jesus’ disciples ask about his sudden shift into storyteller mode. “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” they wonder.

Jesus’ answer is unsettling to say the least. Basically, it’s so people won’t understand what he’s talking about. To drive the point home, Jesus quotes Isaiah 6, where the prophet is sent to further harden the already callous hearts of God’s rebellious people:

Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes.

(Jesus’ choice for “verse of the day” is even more alarming when you read what comes next in Isaiah.)

For some, his statement about parables is yet further proof of a limited atonement, the idea that God chose a select group of people and determined that only they would understand the teachings of Jesus.

At the very least, it begs the question: why would Jesus deliberately keep people from understanding his message? Why would God-in-the-flesh not want to be found?

Calvinists find the answer in their theological presuppositions about God and salvation: Jesus conspires to confuse because he only wants to save those who were chosen beforehand.

Fortunately, there’s a better answer to be found by looking at the historical and cultural backdrop of Matthew 13.

For starters, Matthew 13 is part of a much bigger section of scripture. Altogether, Matthew is arranged into five main sections; this one occurs smack in the middle. It starts with chapter 11 and continues through chapter 13.

In this section, Jesus encounters opposition from all sides:

Jesus’ deliberate obfuscation has to be read in light of all this. It’s a reaction to the opposition he encountered, not the cause of it.

It also helps to remember that everything Jesus said was spoken against the backdrop of Roman occupation. There was an intense debate raging among the Jews over what to do about their unfortunate situation. Some said cooperate with Rome; others advocated violent resistance. Most devout Jews expected the Messiah would sort out the Romans and restore power to Israel when he came. (Even after the resurrection, the disciples still seemed to think this would be the case.)

Jesus came as messiah, but he radically redefined the messiah’s role. He walked the line between Rome’s demand for total acquiescence and the call by some for armed resistance. He knew full well where the people’s thirst for violent revolt would get them. (He didn’t have to google A.D. 70 to figure that one out.)

In Jesus and the Land, Wheaton professor Gary Burge writes:

In the volatile climate of first-century politics — among a people living under the harsh realities of Roman military occupation — we should not expect a public teacher like Jesus to speak explicitly. . . . To exhibit resistance to Rome is to run up against a skilled army which is watching for signs of subversion. To show cooperation with Rome is to run up against fellow Jews for whom such sympathies are intolerable. In every explosive political context (both today and in antiquity), people with opinions must remain opaque to the many listeners standing in the shadows who are choosing sides.

In short, Jesus didn’t obscure his message simply because he was playing favorites. He didn’t hide the truth from certain people because God had predestined them to perish in their ignorance. There were other factors at work.

A little context can be a wonderful thing.


*Fun fact: In reality, Jesus might not have even said “For God so loved the world….” More likely, this was John’s commentary on the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. That’s what happens when Greek manuscripts don’t have any punctuation. Scholars get to play “guess where the quotation marks go.” But still.

Election in the Old Testament, part 3

In the Old Testament, God kicked off his redemptive plan by forming a covenant nation called Israel. The nation as a whole was a chosen instrument, predestined by God.

But each person had a choice to make. If you were born into the covenant, there were dozens of ways you could opt out — that is, be “cut off.” If you were born outside the chosen nation, there was nothing but your own pride to keep you from joining it.

Which leads to another important point about predestination in the Old Testament: it’s always for the benefit of others — i.e. the not-predestined. This idea is woven into the very first promise God made to Abraham:

I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

Notice the promised blessing is unlimited in scope. Anyone who blesses God’s people (and by extension, God himself) will be blessed by God in return. And notice that God’s action comes in response to human action.

Yes, God is orchestrating redemptive history. Yes, he alone initiates salvation. But he does so in a way that leaves room for us to play a meaningful part.

The promise ends with “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” This is the whole reason for God’s covenant with Abraham. God is not raising up a chosen nation for its own sake, as if to carve out a tiny portion of the human race for himself. He intends to use this nation as a vehicle to bring salvation to the entire world.

After the exodus, God established his covenant with the whole nation at Mount Sinai, calling them a “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19). A priest is a human conduit for grace. Someone who not only points the way to God, but helps others walk the path.

In other words, the Israelites were not predestined to be “saved” for their own sake. They were predestined to be priests. They were predestined to draw others to God — or as Isaiah puts it, to be a “light for the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42, 49).

In the New Testament, we see the same connection between predestination and priestly proclamation. Paul refers at one point to his “priestly duty of proclaiming the gospel of God” (Romans 15). Elsewhere, Peter writes to the church:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession [all of which is predestination language], that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Predestination is never an end unto itself. We are not predestined to be members of a club, we are predestined to be ambassadors and priests, proclaiming the good news to others so they in turn can be predestined to do the same.

Calvinism views predestination as a means by which God narrows the scope of his redemptive agenda, applying its benefits to a select few. But in the Old Testament, predestination works in reverse, gradually expanding the circle to include more and more people — with the end goal of blessing “all peoples on earth.”

Election in the Old Testament, part 2

The predestination debate often gravitates toward the same handful of New Testament texts. The problem, to quote Paul Eddy, is, “There’s an entire 39 books before the New Testament that use the same kind of [predestination] language.”

In other words, if you want to understand what the Bible says about election, don’t skip the Old Testament. (To be fair, many Calvinists don’t. They just read it differently.)

Jesus and Paul were steeped in the Hebrew scriptures. One was a rabbi, the other a Pharisee. The New Testament quotes the Old at least 300 times and alludes to it as many as 4,000 times, according to the late Roger Nicole. In other words, it’s important.

When you read the Old Testament, you’ll find that God called or “predestined” a number of individuals: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, etc. But each was chosen to play a specific role in God’s redemptive plan. Their stories do nothing to bolster the Calvinist view that God predestines every individual to salvation or damnation.

If you want to argue that, there should be some evidence for it in the Old Testament.

And there isn’t.

Again, quoting Bethel University theologian Paul Eddy:

If you ask, ‘Who’s chosen in the Old Testament?’ it’s Israel. It’s not particular individual Israelites. It’s the nation of Israel. It’s a corporate category.

God ordained there would be a group called Israel (Genesis 12). He predestined this group to be his “chosen people,” a covenant nation. But there is nothing to indicate that he determined the individual composition of that group. From the beginning, God intended for everyone in that nation to benefit, even though clearly not everyone did. Notice Moses’ parting words to the Israelites in Deuteronomy 29:

All of you are standing today in the presence of the LORD your God — your leaders and chief men, your elders and officials, and all the other men of Israel, together with your children and your wives, and the foreigners living in your camps who chop your wood and carry your water. You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the LORD your God . . .

The fact that there would be a covenant nation was fixed, determined, foreordained. The individual composition of that nation was not. Anyone could opt in; anyone could opt out.

If you were an Israelite, there were several ways you could opt out. For example:

But anyone could opt in, too — even if they weren’t an Israelite. Foreigners were invited to celebrate the Passover, the Jewish precursor to the Eucharist (Exodus 12). They were welcome to make offerings to God (Numbers 15). Any foreigner who chose to live among the Israelites was presumed to be part of the covenant and to be treated accordingly (Numbers 9).

What’s more, God didn’t just give people a choice; he gave them the ability to make that choice (Deuteronomy 30):

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach . . . I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction. For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to him, and to keep his commands, decrees and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess.

Calvinism says that individual election is necessary because humans, in their depravity, are utterly incapable of choosing God. Specifically, John Calvin wrote that we are deprived of “soundness of will,” i.e. the ability to choose what is acceptable to God.

But God appears to think otherwise.

In the Old Testament, God initiated redemption, no question. But there was a still choice to be made. And God gave people the ability to make it, even after the fall.

It’s not because people are so awesome. Not because we deserve it. But because that’s the kind of God he is.

I believe that a God who gives us freedom even though he doesn’t have to is greater than a God who predetermines every tiny detail of the universe.

Shock-jock pastor meets the full (but not so manly) might of the British Empire

Mark Driscoll is mad. (Yes, again.)

This time, it’s about his recent interview with UK radio host and “timid Brit” Justin Brierley. A few extracts were released ahead of a profile piece in Christianity magazine. They include one where Driscoll challenges Brierley on everything from the number of manly men in his church (which is pastored by his wife) to whether Brierley believes in penal substitution. And here I thought the interviewer generally asked the questions.

Other highlights include Driscoll saying that British churches are run by “a bunch of cowards who aren’t telling truth,” and claiming the entire country doesn’t “have one young guy that anybody’s listening to who can preach the Bible.”

In other words, the problem with the British church is that it needs more strident celebrity pastors?

Then there was the bit where Driscoll — famous calling his theological opponents a bunch of “chicks and chickified dudes with limp wrists” — described the UK church scene as “guys in dresses preaching to grandmas.”

When it came out that the presenter’s wife is a pastor, Driscoll launched into a “whose church is bigger?” competition, which he concluded with this statement:

You look at your results, look at my results, and look at the variable that’s most obvious [i.e. male leadership].”

Afterward on his blog, Driscoll characterized the experience as “the most disrespectful, adversarial, and subjective” interview he’s had since releasing his latest book, Real Marriage, which he co-authored with his wife Grace.

He said he felt set up — namely, that the interview “had nearly nothing to do with the book or its subject matter” as expected. He complained of being “selectively edited and presented in a way that is not entirely accurate.”

So Brierley posted the entire interview online.

And yeah… he asks some tough questions, much as he did when he interviewed Rob Bell about his controversial book Love Wins. That’s what journalists do.

At least 20 minutes of the interview touched on Driscoll’s book directly or indirectly. Before starting, Brierley asked if it was OK to venture into other subjects as well. And his pointed questions were balanced by his oft-repeated admiration for Driscoll’s willingness to tackle the difficult issues head on.  

Another complaint was that Brierley ignored Driscoll’s wife, who was on the phone with him and was meant to be part of the interview. This one seems like a fair complaint. Grace Driscoll was asked just one question during the entire interview. Brierley quickly apologized for this at the end. More to the point, instead of complaining about it after the fact, why didn’t Mark Driscoll — as his wife’s defender, protector, etc. — speak up for her during the interview? Why did he never say, “Hey, my wife has some great insights to share about the book; let’s make sure we cover that, too”?

While we’re (kind of) on the subject, if you believe it’s wrong for a woman to “teach or have authority” over men, why would you co-write a book about marriage with your wife? What if a man reads your book — namely, the sections written by your wife — and learns something from it? What if he actually “submits” to some of her advice? Precisely how is that not “teaching or having authority” over men?

What’s unfortunate is that Driscoll had a number of reasonable things to say during the interview, most of which were overshadowed by his reaction to it. When asked about the provocatively titled chapter “Can We _____?” in Real Marriage, Driscoll gave a perfectly sensible rationale for his advice to young couples.

But why did he feel the need to chide the presenter as “scandalous” and “immature” for asking about this chapter in the first place? You mean to tell me it’s OK to write a chapter on all the things a married couple should and shouldn’t do during their more intimate moments, give it a provocative title designed to grab people’s attention, and then get irritated when a reporter wants to ask you about it?

There were plenty of other illuminating moments during the interview, both bad and good. Like when Driscoll demonstrated that he doesn’t fully understand the difference between single and double predestination. On the plus side, he offered that predestination and gender roles are second-tier issues, not litmus tests of orthodoxy. (Whew.)

But Driscoll’s dressing-down of the presenter near the end was just, well, sad. You can read a partial transcript over at Cognitive Discopants (= best blog name ever).

Driscoll asks Brierley how many young men have come to Christ at the church his wife pastors. Driscoll’s point — implied here, but stated clearly a moment later — is that he’s won more converts; therefore he’s right about women in ministry. When Brierley points out that a few young men have, in fact, come to Christ since his wife took the reins of their small church, Driscoll responds:

This is where the excuses come, not the verses. This is where the excuses come, not the verses.

Setting aside the fact that throwing around Bible verses like weapons is a poor way to win an argument, Driscoll’s logic is, in essence: “I’m popular. I’ve got lots of people coming to my church. Which proves I’m right and you’re wrong.”

It’s an odd argument to make, especially for someone who has openly (and, in my opinion, rightly) criticized the prosperity gospel of Joel Osteen. If numbers are a sign of God’s personal endorsement, then Osteen is even more right than Mark is.

Next, Driscoll asks what kind of men are to be found in Brierley’s church. “Strong men?” Then he asks whether Brierley’s wife does any “sexual counseling” with men. To which the answer is, not surprisingly, no. Like any sensible church, they have male leaders available to counsel other men about their sexual problems.

Then Driscoll changes subjects entirely, asking Brierley if he believes in the “conscious, literal, eternal torment of hell.” And so the litmus test comes out.

Brierley rightly asks what this has to do with the subject at hand, women in ministry. To which Driscoll replies:

It depends on your view of God. Is God like a mom who just embraces everyone, or is he like a father who also protects and defends and disciplines?

I’m not sure who Driscoll’s trying harder to insult: egalitarians (who worship an effeminate teddy bear, apparently) or every mom on the planet (all of whom are apparently incapable of protecting, defending, and disciplining their children).

Over on his blog, Driscoll pleads with British churches not to compromise on “essential doctrinal issues,” which for him includes “the reality of a literal conscious eternal torment in hell.” Translation: if you don’t believe in eternal conscious torment, you’re not a Christian.

OK, but one of Driscoll’s theological heroes, John Stott (“whom I love,” Driscoll said during the interview) didn’t believe in eternal conscious torment. He was an annihilationist. Worse, he was British!

As the interview-in-reverse draws to a close, Driscoll tries one last time to prove that Brierley isn’t a real Christian — because it’s all about who’s in and who’s out — this time by asking whether he believes in the penal substitutionary theory of atonement.

From the perspective of historic Christian orthodoxy, Brierley’s answer is quite sensible: substitutionary atonement is one of the ways (but not the only way) we understand what happened on the cross. I should say “try to understand,” because precisely how Christ defeated sin and death is wrapped up in mystery beyond our ability to fathom.

But for Driscoll, that’s not good enough. Penal substitution is the “central, governing” idea of the cross. To which I respond with the same question I’ve asked of Calvinism in general. If that’s so, then why isn’t penal substitution clearly stated in the universal creeds of the church, much less Paul’s summation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15 (which, as Scot McKnight has demonstrated, provided the framework for the earliest creeds)?

Finally, a word of advice. (Not that you’re reading, Mark. But I’ll pretend anyway.) Every time you get torn apart for saying something careless, you complain that you were selectively quoted and taken out of context.

You’re a smart guy. You’re culturally savvy. The answer is staring you in the face.

If you’re tired of people throwing all the careless things you’ve said back at you, stop saying them.

It’s time to man up, Mark.


Update: Christianity magazine (the publication behind the Mark Driscoll interview) tweeted a link to my post earlier today. So I’ve posted a follow-up on why I think it’s important to speak up about Driscoll.

Election in the Old Testament, part 1

When discussing a contested issue — you know, like predestination — there’s often a tendency to say things like, “Let’s just go back to what the Bible says.” But it’s not always that simple. There are a couple reasons for this; but for now, let’s highlight one.

All of us read with a filter — a set of presuppositions that color what we read and how we interpret it.

For example, most people reading this are the product of a Western culture that prizes the individual above all else. We’ve drunk deeply from the font of individualism, without even realizing it.

If you grew up in America, you’ve gotten a double dose. The virtue of “rugged individualism” (it’s taken for granted that it’s a virtue) courses through our veins. It’s woven into our national mythology.

And so we tend to think of our faith, like everything else, in primarily individual terms. We read the Bible as if it were written to each of us personally. (There’s even a website selling personalized Bibles with your name inserted into over 7,000 verses.) We talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus. We invite others to accept him as their personal savior.

There’s just one problem. The Bible doesn’t talk like this, because it’s not a Western book.

It never characterizes Jesus as our “personal savior.” When it does speak of a relationship with God, it’s usually in the context of a community. To have a relationship with God is to be part of a redeemed community — the covenant people, the body of Christ, etc.

We sometimes talk about “walking with God” as if it’s just me and Jesus strolling down the beach. The Bible imagines it in very different terms:

I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people. (2 Corinthians 6, where Paul quotes several OT passages)

When we come across the pronoun “you” in our Bibles, we assume it means each of us individually. But more often than not, it’s plural, not singular. It’s you the community, not you the individual.

Here’s an example:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Corinthians 3, NRSV)

Paul’s not describing each believer as their own little temple here. He’s saying you the community are God’s temple. God’s Spirit dwells in you as a community. (The NIV does a better job in this case by using the phrase “you yourselves.”)

So what does all this have to do with predestination? Everything.

Is it possible we’ve simply assumed the Bible has individuals in mind when it talks about predestination? In doing so, is it possible we’ve imported our Western cultural assumptions into the text, without even realizing it?

Next up, predestination in the Old Testament.

Corporate election

I spent several posts (starting here) describing my journey in and out of Calvinism — specifically, the neo-Reformed version. I left because I came to believe two things about the Bible and predestination. One, the Bible doesn’t set out to give a comprehensive understanding of predestination, what it is, or how it works. (There are lots of things we try to make the Bible say that it simply has no interest in saying.)

Two, to the degree the Bible does speak about predestination, it paints a very different picture.

And while we’re doing things in pairs… the Bible (as I understand it) differs from Calvinism on predestination in two key ways, both of which I alluded to in an earlier post:

  1. Calvinism views predestination as primarily an individual affair, by which God preemptively hand-picked certain people for salvation.
  2. Calvinism see predestination as both the means and the end, rather than as a means by which God makes it possible for any and all to come to him.

Both problems can be resolved by something known as the “corporate view of election.”

Just what is corporate election? Well, not the best name ever, for starters. Especially in the wake of the now infamous Citizens United case.

Basically, the corporate view of election says that God predestined there would be a redeemed community called the church, but he did not determine in advance the individual composition of that group.

This view stands in contrast to both to the traditional Calvinist perspective (that God predestined individuals) AND the traditional Arminian view (that God saw in advance who would choose him and predestined them on the basis of his foreknowledge — though some Arminians accept the corporate view instead).

The video below is a helpful intro to the corporate view of election, courtesy of Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, pastors at Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. They say basically everything I have to say about the corporate view, only better and more succinctly. But I’ll still give it a shot.

(Thanks to Kurt Willems for highlighting this video on his blog last year.)

The day the tulip died, part 9

Rob Bell said two things that ended my journey with Calvinism. The first can be found here. The second (again, I’m paraphrasing from memory) was this:

You want to believe in predestination? That’s fine. Just remember that in the Bible, God doesn’t predestine people primarily for their own benefit. People are predestined so they can be a blessing to others.

Calvinists and non-Calvinists have a tendency to talk past each other when debating predestination. The Calvinist asks, “Why don’t you believe in predestination when it’s so clearly taught in the Bible?” And to be fair, some of our answers come across as evasive.

So here it is:

I believe in predestination. I believe God has predestined specific individuals. For example, he predestined Abraham, Moses, David, Mary, Paul, etc.

Exactly when God predestined them and whether they could have resisted, I don’t know. (Moses certainly tried.) I’m not seeking to build a comprehensive theological system, because comprehensive theological systems tend to collapse under their own weight.

But take another look at the individuals mentioned above. They all have at least two things in common. First, each played a remarkable role in the redemptive drama.

In linguistics, there’s a fallacy known as illegitimate totality transfer. It’s when you take one possible meaning of a word and read it into every occurrence without regard for context. (For example, “green” can be an idiom for money. But that doesn’t mean “green” always means money.)

We run a similar risk when we read the accounts of people like Abraham and Moses. We see they were chosen by God in some way, so we assume everyone who comes to know God was predestined in exactly the same way. But on what basis?

Second, each was predestined for a specific purpose. And that purpose always has to do with someone else. Usually, lots of someone elses.

Abraham was predestined to be the father of a great nation, through whom God would bless “all peoples on earth” (Genesis 12).

Moses was predestined to deliver an entire nation from slavery and lead them into a covenant with Yahweh (Exodus 3).

David was predestined to be first in an unbroken line of Jewish kings — culminating in Jesus the Messiah, king of the world (1 Samuel 16; 2 Samuel 7).

Mary was predestined to be the mother of God incarnate (Luke 1).

Paul was predestined to bring the good news to Gentiles all over the Roman Empire (Acts 9; 1 Corinthians 1).

Every one of them was predestined for the benefit of others. When we come across individual predestination in the Bible, it’s never an end unto itself; it’s a means to a much bigger end. God’s saving plan might start with the predestination of one person, but it never stops there.

For Calvinism, predestination consists of membership in an exclusive club: the “elect.” Which, assuming I see myself as a member of that club, puts the emphasis on me and how I benefit from being one of the lucky few.

In this respect, the Calvinist view of predestination veers dangerously close to that of the Jewish religious authorities who opposed Jesus and John the Baptist.

The Pharisees saw themselves as the elect, part of an exclusive “bless-me” club. Both John and Jesus called them on it.

John warned them not to hide behind their genetic link to Abraham, because God could find children for himself elsewhere, if he pleased (Luke 3). Jesus rebuked them for shutting the door of God’s kingdom in other people’s faces (Matthew 23).

The Pharisees had forgotten their true purpose as a chosen people: to be a light to the Gentiles — to the supposedly non-chosen ones.

By viewing predestination as both the means and the end, Calvinism risks making the same mistake. But there is another way. It starts by taking seriously statements like God “wants all people to be saved.” It accepts that God is very much involved in the redemptive drama unfolding all around us — sometimes even orchestrating events to very specific ends. But his chief goal is to be reconciled to as many people as possible, not a select few for whom he’s rigged the outcome in advance.

This is what I realized when I heard Rob Bell speak in passing about predestination. And that was the day the tulip died.

Thwarting God?

If God orchestrates every detail of history, if he decided in advance all who would and wouldn’t be saved, and if his sovereign will cannot be thwarted under any circumstances — then what should we make of the following statement from Luke’s gospel?

All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.

Members of the Jewish religious establishment are generally depicted as the baddies in the gospel story. With few exceptions (namely, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea), they resist Jesus at every turn. But according to Luke, their resistance wasn’t what God had in mind. God had other plans for them.

You could argue this is a case of “double perspectives,” to borrow a phrase from John Piper. That, on one level, God wants the Pharisees to be saved, much in the same way he wants everyone to be saved. But this desire on God’s part amounts to little more than vague wishing, since it has no impact on the outcome. Meanwhile, on another level, God has sovereignly predestined the Pharisees to be the antagonistic reprobates they are.

But before you appeal to the “double perspectives” argument, take a closer look at the phrase “God’s purpose” (Greek, ten boulen tou theo). In the New Testament, the word boule is used exclusively in reference to God’s sovereign will — what he has decreed or decided should happen.

For example, Peter claims in Acts that Jesus was crucified because God’s “power and will [boule] had decided beforehand” that it should happen. Piper uses this very text to argue for meticulous sovereignty.

In Ephesians 1, Paul writes, “We were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity to the purpose [boule] of his will.”

So it would seem from Luke that God’s sovereign will — which predestines people and orchestrates history — can be resisted in some cases. What should we make of this?

The day the tulip died, part 8

So there were two things Rob Bell said that made me walk away from Calvinism. The first (and I’m paraphrasing from memory) was:

There are lots of things God can do [followed by a rapid-fire, Rob Bell-esque list], but the one thing he can’t do is make you love him.

OK, to be fair, this sounds a bit . . . problematic. Isn’t God all-powerful? How can you say there’s something he CAN’T do? Didn’t God once ask whether anything was “too hard for the Lord” — the obvious answer being NO — and then proceed to make parents out of a couple of infertile nonagenarians?

But there IS something — or more precisely, a category of things — which God cannot do.

God cannot do that which is incompatible with his character. According to the writer of Hebrews, God cannot break an oath. According to James (the brother of Jesus), God cannot tempt or be tempted by evil.

The apostle John wrote that “God is love.” That is, God is the very embodiment of love. It’s essential to his character.

Sure, God is lots of things. God is holy (Psalm 99:9). God is light (1 John 1:5). God is spirit — i.e. breath, the source of life (John 4:24).

And to the extent that God is any of these things, he cannot be their antithesis. He cannot be unholy. He cannot be darkness. He cannot be death (which explains why Genesis and Revelation connect death to separation from God).

Last, God cannot be whatever is antithetical to love. So what exactly is love’s antithesis? Is it hate? Strictly speaking, no. Sometimes love compels us to hate certain things. Love demands that we hate injustice, oppression, and discrimination, to name a few.

The antithesis of love is coercion. Love, as portrayed in the scriptures, requires a decision not to use what power you have to manipulate others. It means setting aside your priorities to focus on the interests of others (Philippians 2). God himself provides the model for this kind of love, which we are called to emulate.

Other gods coerce. The God of the Bible loves.

In response, the neo-Reformed argue that love and coercion are not necessarily incompatible. Some, including Mark Driscoll, have offered the following hypothetical scenario (or in Driscoll’s case, not so hypothetical) to make their point: “If your child ran into oncoming traffic, would you just stand there and watch because you don’t believe in coercive love?”

The answer is, of course, no. But the analogy doesn’t really work. According to the Bible, God is the father of all who live. So how could an all-powerful God run into the street after some of his children but not others? What kind of God is that?

Besides, God has already gone to the greatest lengths possible to save all who will have him — incarnating himself, managing to contain uncontainable deity in a human form, and then dying at the hands of those he could’ve easily crushed.

The bottom line: if you believe, as I now do, that love and coercion are fundamentally incompatible, then it becomes impossible to maintain a Calvinist view of predestination.

And not because free will is so important. The truth is, we’re not nearly as free as we like to think. All sorts of external factors — where we were born, what kind of environment we grew up in, etc. — limit our freedom in a thousand different ways.

Then again, this isn’t really about free will.

It’s about God. It’s about what kind of God we believe in.

If we agree with the apostle John that “God is love,” and if we believe the same rules of love apply to him (because God made them in the first place), then it’s impossible to conceive of God determining that a select few would be saved — willing or not — while the rest are predestined to eternal damnation.

God cannot make you love him, as Rob Bell once said, because love by its very nature doesn’t force itself on the unwilling.

Part 9 (the final part) of this series can be found here.

The day the tulip died, part 7

My journey toward Calvinism was gradual, and so was my departure.

My wife and I quietly left our neo-Reformed church, not entirely sure what we were looking for. A friend from our old church predicted we’d be back before long.

Instead, we ended up at Mars Hill (the Michigan one, not the Seattle one). To my neo-Reformed friends, it’s OK to roll your eyes and say, “Well, that explains a lot.” I used to look at Rob Bell and Mars Hill the same way many of you do.

In fact, I thought about telling this story without mentioning Rob or Mars Hill by name. My guess is that some on the Reformed side will be tempted to dismiss what follows, purely because of the association with Rob Bell. Anyone who’s been part of the Mars Hill community knows what I’m talking about; Rob even alluded to it in his final sermon (top of page 7).

But Mars Hill is too important to this story to leave unmentioned.

Anyway, during my Calvinist days, I dismissed Rob as just another trendy pastor with a knack for saying what people wanted to ear.

Then Rob spoke in one of my seminary classes. (This was long before he had become one of Time’s 100 most influential people.) I was struck by how poorly he fit the populist megachurch pastor stereotype. He seemed to draw large numbers in spite of his best efforts, not because of them. Refusing to put a sign outside the church (there isn’t one to this day), spending the first year teaching through Leviticus, etc. He wasn’t taking his cues from the church growth consultant’s playbook, that’s for sure.

So we came to spend three-and-a-half very formative years at Mars Hill. During this time, Rob said two things that ended my journey with Calvinism.

(How’s that for leaving you hanging till the next post?)

Part 8 of this series can be found here.