Saturday, March 26, 2011

A brief consideration of objections to studying the doctrines of grace

Many Christians get uncomfortable when the topics of election and predestination come up. In fact, a conversation about any of the issues related to the doctrines of grace is potentially a cause of heartburn for a great many believers.  Many think these issues should only be sparingly handled and that it is usually better to not dig into them too deeply. I agree that it is certainly possible to handle these issues in an unhelpful or even damaging way but through the years I have noticed that much of the concern goes beyond concerns about appropriate balance or humility. In numerous occasions both in classes specific to the topic and in general bible studies where the question was raised I have been advised that these are issues that are best left mostly unexamined by the average Christian. Careful consideration of these objections demonstrates that there is something particular to these doctrines that causes them to be uniquely concerning to people. I would like to take a moment to briefly reflect upon the most popular reasons usually given as to why these topics should not be studied too seriously.

  1. These things are too complicated and we will never be able to understand them:

It is true that we should be wary of anyone who claims to have all the answers nailed down perfectly on these issues but is it true that these doctrines are uniquely complex? The answer is no. The doctrine of the incarnation for example is far more complex than are the doctrines of grace. Also fundamentally more complicated is the doctrine of the Trinity. I have, however, never been advised that I should avoid teaching on either of these. In fact, most people are excited to learn more of what the bible teaches about those truths. They recognize that they will not be fully comprehensible but want to know what has been revealed about them in a way that tends not to be the case with the doctrines of grace. It is true that the doctrines of grace are not fully comprehensible but neither are many other basic truths of our faith (we are laboring to understand God after all) and there is much more explicit scriptural teaching on the doctrines of grace than there is on other complicated topics such as the Trinity.

  1. There are brilliant Godly people on both sides of this issue:

This is closely related to #1 in that it implies that since other smarter people couldn’t come to a consensus that we shouldn’t bother. It is true that there are brilliant thinkers on both sides of these issues but our responsibility is to seek to understand the Word of God as best we can with the grace given to us. The things of God are spiritually discerned and the truths of any basic Christian doctrine are not attained upon the basis of the strength of our intellect but rather by God who reveals it. Indeed, there is no major theological issue upon which there is not a variation of opinion and yet on most of these things we are content to study them together and formulate our own conclusion. For example, issues such as the function, efficacy, and mode of baptism have a scholarly history just as divided as the doctrines of grace but within fellowships those issues are seldom avoided. It also seems to me that if there are various opinions on an important issue that there is more not less reason to look into it.

  1. We should not try to pry into the deep and secret things of God:

This concern is often followed by quoting Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God”. The implication is that by delving into these issues we are going beyond the boundaries of what the Lord intended for us to be concerned with. There are certainly things that the Lord has kept for Himself but the second half of Deut 29:29 reads “but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” The secret things belong to God but what He has revealed is given to us for our benefit and they “belong to us”. Our understanding of these issues should be biblically based and not simply philosophical speculation. The scriptural passages that bear upon these teachings are not hidden or secret. These themes run throughout the bible and include some rather long and extensive sections of scripture. In fact, they are so frequent that it is necessary to have a position of some kind on these issues in order to interpret many whole teaching segments including the overall argument of entire books such as Romans, Ephesians, 1 Peter etc. I agree that the why and how of these doctrines applied to particular lives and events is to a great extent a hidden thing in God but I believe that they are so is clearly revealed. The issue becomes one of interpretation of those passages. Whether it is well developed or not, if you are studying the bible you are already utilizing some kind of understanding of these doctrines to support your overall understanding of the revelation of God in the scriptures.

  1. These are not practical concerns… What difference does it really make?

Some Christians argue that we are called to witness the gospel and teach people to do what God has commanded and to what extent He is guiding, planning, or reacting to this doesn’t change that so why worry about it. Shouldn’t we pray as if everything depends upon God and work as though everything depends on us?  

There are few things that have more of a practical impact on the lives of a believer than their position on these issues. First, your perspective on these issues influences how you understand the very purpose of ministry, teaching, preaching etc. The type of worship service, type of evangelistic activities, and even the way that you pray will be influenced by your view of God and how He relates to His people. Second, your understanding of God’s sovereignty has a tremendous influence on how you respond to the challenges, trials, and setbacks in this world. It affects how you process things like the ultimate purpose behind the earthquake and tsunami that recently hit Japan or the pressures to compromise your integrity that might be placed upon you by your employer or associates. Third, the questions of what is involved in salvation and how it is attained and if it can be lost are preeminently practical questions that are foundational to Christian life and experience. If these doctrines do not make a difference in the lives of believers then I submit that they are either not understood or not believed.

  1. They are divisive

It is true that an examination of these doctrines can be divisive but we would do well to ask ourselves upon what basis they cause division. Often division is the result of stubbornness, pride, or arrogance. Obviously none of these is from The Spirit and are all inconsistent with the humble submission of the believer to the Word of God. If, however, these doctrines are investigated in Christian love and humility recognizing that they are difficult and seem to us all to be unnatural when we first encounter them then it is my experience that they can be discussed in a positive and productive way even with those who struggle with them. On the other hand there is a sense in which the Word of God divides His children from those who are not willing to submit to His teaching. As Luther said, wherever the Gospel is preached there is opposition. There are many other issues that are even more divisive such as the role of women in leadership, homosexual Christian identity, and even the style of the worship music that conservative churches continue to teach on openly without reservation.  Yes, these doctrines can be divisive but if handled with humility they should no more divisive than any other spiritual teaching in God’s Word.


I don’t doubt that these (and many others) are sincere concerns among brothers and sisters who raise them. If, however, we pause to reflect upon the logic of them we will see that there must be something else involved because those same people do not often seem to be as concerned about many other issues that would rightfully fall under the same objections. There are many complex and sensitive issues that we routinely discuss among ourselves when we gather to study. Certainly since these doctrines touch upon our fundamental understanding of God and salvation they easily lend themselves to emotional reactions. To change ones mind (either way) regarding these truths requires the alteration of ones very view of the world and God at a basic level. The reason, however, why we are naturally hesitant to investigate them is that they also require a fundamental shift in how we understand ourselves. Whatever position we hold, we should not be afraid to seek an understanding of what God has revealed to us in His word. The Word of God was not given only to the scribes and scholars, it was given to all of us for our own edification and growth and every truth in it is there for our benefit. Since God chose to include these truths in His word we have a responsibility to address ourselves to them. I pray that we always do so with due reverence and humility so that both the stronger and weaker brothers and sisters might be built up.

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