Issue #695 -------
May 23, 2016
For to bear all naked truths, and to
envisage circumstance, all calm,
that is the top of sovereignty.
John Keats (1795-1821)
"In historical events great men, so called, are but the labels that serve to give a name to an event, and like labels, they have the least possible connection with the event itself. Every action of theirs, that seems to them an act of their own free will, is in an historical sense not free will at all, but in bondage to the whole course of previous history, and predestined from all eternity." So stated Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), the Russian author and philosopher, in his monumental work "War and Peace" (published: 1869), thereby expressing the view of many down through the centuries that man's perception of his own free moral agency is largely a delusion, and that men and events are instead predetermined and predestined since before the creation of the universe by our Sovereign God. In recent centuries, although known and promoted long before that, this theology was perhaps voiced most powerfully by John Calvin (1509-1564), the French-born, Swiss-based protestant reformer whose Institutes of the Christian Religion "was a comprehensive and orderly summary of Christian reformed doctrine which became one of the most influential contributions to Christian literature and Western thought" ever written [William P. Barker, Who's Who in Church History, p. 58]. Central to the teachings of John Calvin, indeed at the very heart of Calvinism, is the concept of the absolute sovereignty of God. Calvin denied we have freedom of will, declaring, rather, that God's will is absolute; His predestination and predetermination certain; His grace irresistible. The chief tenets of Calvin's teaching are known collectively as "the five points," which were set forth formally at the Synod of Dordt in 1618, and which are easily remembered by the acrostic: TULIP = Total Hereditary Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Perseverance (or Preservation) of the Saints. For an in-depth examination of each of these points of doctrine I would encourage the reader to take a look at my "Study of TULIP Theology: Examining the Five Points of Calvinism in Light of God's Inspired Word." With respect to our study in this issue of Reflections, Calvin wrote, "All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or the other of these ends, we say that we have been predestinated to life or death" [Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:21:5]. Before the foundation of the world, according to this doctrine of "Unconditional Election," God made His choice who would be saved and who would be damned, and there is absolutely nothing either can do to change this predetermination of God's sovereign will. Man has NO choice in the matter; no freedom of will to choose. The choice has already been made, and it is not the place of man (the clay in the hands of the Potter) to question the will of God (the Potter who shapes the clay as HE wills: some for glorious use, some for destruction).
Which brings us to a rather difficult and even controversial passage of Scripture in the writings of the apostle Paul that has long been employed by those embracing the above doctrine: Romans 9:22-23. Some even believe this may have been one of the texts the apostle Peter had in mind when he opined, "His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction" (2 Peter 3:16, NIV). To set the context, in Romans 9 Paul is indeed discussing the sovereignty of God, but in the context of His dealings with both the nation of Israel and the surrounding Gentile nations. The Israelites had an elevated view of themselves as those solely beloved and chosen by God, while the nations about them, they believed, were only tolerated at best by deity (if not destined for destruction). God did indeed, and I believe still does to some extent, find favor with this "chosen people," and He blessed them greatly over the centuries. However, under this new covenant of grace, extended through His Son, He also expresses His love for and acceptance of those outside physical and national Israel. Indeed, there were times the Israelites were shown less favor from above than the pagan peoples around them (especially when the latter were accepting the Gospel message while the former where rejecting it). The Israelites, needless to say, were not overly pleased with this, and they questioned God's judgment in showing grace to those outside "the chosen people" (which, of course, in their view, was them). Paul sought to inform them that they had no right to question God's choosing; He is sovereign, and thus may choose whom He wills; just as He may reject whom He wills, which at times in history was the Israelites! After all, under this new covenant of grace, "they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants" (Romans 9:6-7). True "Israel" is now determined inwardly, not outwardly (Romans 2:28-29); it is circumcision of the heart, not of the flesh. Our Sovereign can add branches to His choice olive tree, just as He can remove branches and then add them back, should He so choose (Romans 11:17-24). In like manner, the divine Potter may do as He pleases with the lump of clay: fashioning from it some pots for honorable use, and some pots for common use; some pots to be preserved, some pots to be destroyed. And what right has the clay to question the Potter? (Romans 9:19f). Thus, as you read the following passage from the New American Standard Bible, remember that the context is God's just dealings with both the Israelites and the Gentiles with respect to their respective states of either belief or disbelief.
Romans 9:20-25 -- Who are you, O man, who answers back to God? The thing molded will not say to the molder, "Why did you make me like this," will it? Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use, and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so in order that He might make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles. As He says also in Hosea, "I will call those who were not My people, 'My people,' and her who was not beloved, 'Beloved.' And it shall be that in the place where it was said to them, 'You are not My people,' there they shall be called sons of the living God."
The passage of particular interest to us in this current study is found in verse 22 where Paul speaks of "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction." Does this mean what it seems to mean? What some say it means? That God actually made/created some people or nations for the purpose of destroying them? This touches on the question addressed in the last issue of my Reflections ("Questioning God's Judgment: Reflecting on the Midianite Massacre" - Issue #694). Men struggle with the thought that they, either individually or collectively, could have been predetermined for (indeed, even specifically created for) ultimate destruction! Is this merely a temporal destruction, one that occurs solely in this realm, or, even worse, is this an eternal destruction (an everlasting damnation)?! The former, difficult though it may be to imagine, is somewhat "graspable," but the latter is truly unthinkable! Such removes freedom of choice; it destroys the notion of freewill, which most of us cherish. It also paints a portrait of God that men find hard to appreciate, must less understand. How is this to be resolved? Part of the solution may be found in the following statement: "The most natural way to look at the God/man relationship is from the human perspective, but the most necessary is from the divine" [D. Stuart Briscoe, The Communicator's Commentary: Romans, p. 190]. Paul seeks to elevate our view of events in time/space to the view of the One outside of both, yet who is nevertheless over both. This is not easily done, however, and thus we concur with Moses E. Lard who said of Paul's statement to the disciples in the city of Rome, "we have confessedly a difficult passage" [Commentary on Paul's Letter to Romans, p. 312].
We have no problem understanding the concept of men creating something for the sole purpose of destroying it. We ourselves do it quite frequently. We make targets and take them to a shooting range for the sole purpose of shooting holes in them. We further employ great skill and technology in fashioning clay pigeons for the sole purpose of blowing them to bits with our shotguns! These "aerial targets" are made for no other purpose than to be destroyed by us, and we take great personal satisfaction, and even find glory, in destroying every single one flung into the air before us! We even get medals and trophies for not missing any. Some suggest that God has fashioned some people and nations much like we fashion clay pigeons: for the sole purpose of destroying them, and that He does so to His glory. If men are not troubled by such use of the objects which they themselves create from the clay before them, why should they be troubled by a similar use of the objects created from the clay before the Lord God? Paul almost seems to be making that very point, doesn't he? Indeed, a translation note in the 1599 Geneva Bible, following the lead of Calvinistic doctrine, observes, "Therefore again, we may say with Paul, that some men are made by God the Creator for destruction." Yet, is this really what Paul is suggesting? Some believe it is; others, myself included, are not so convinced, and believe there may be exegetically legitimate alternatives.
Some scholars and commentators, who embrace the view that man has NO freedom of will and/or choice, and that God does indeed create some persons and peoples/nations for ultimate destruction (both temporal and eternal), and who also realize this is an abhorrent theology to most believers, "solve" the problem by essentially telling people to stop thinking about it and cease asking questions, and that if one does raise such questions and concerns, then they are blaspheming. "The answer is not so much a solution of the intellectual difficulty, as an appeal to the religious sense to prevent it from being raised. That His dealings should be questioned at all is a breach of the reverence due to God. Whatever they may be, God's dealings are not to be canvassed by men" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 242]. Charles Swindoll said, "God does not answer to humanity any more than He must answer to flowers" [Insights on Romans, p. 196]. He's right, as Job discovered. God doesn't have to explain Himself to us. Yet, it is also true that the possibility exists that our concerns and confusion are generated by our own insufficient knowledge and understanding, and our misinterpretation of certain texts (such as Romans 9:22-23). Thus, God may NOT be doing what many claim Him to be doing (i.e., creating certain persons and nations for the purpose of damning them). It is just possible, therefore, that this theology is false. Thus, man does have freedom of choice, and man does have freewill, and God does not predetermine some persons and nations to damnation. There is indeed "a difficulty to the human mind in reconciling theoretically divine omnipotence with human freewill and responsibility" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, pt. 2 - Romans, p. 267], yet what we may need to be doing is questioning our theology rather than questioning our God and accusing Him of that which He may NOT be doing!
Thus, we must ask: Is there a way, that is consistent with biblical doctrine, to allow for both the sovereignty of God and the freewill of man? I believe there is, and, furthermore, I believe this can even be demonstrated from the very passage under consideration in this study. Although "Calvinism finds its peculiar sovereignty of God in this verse, such a sovereignty which is contrary to God's very nature as 'Agape' does not exist" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, p. 620]. I'll be very blunt: I firmly believe the view that God willfully and knowingly creates some people for the purpose of eternally damning them is blasphemous! It is an abominable absurdity! "God does not do what is here ascribed to Him. He does not make the human family just what they are, and then find fault with them for being what He makes them" [Moses E. Lard, Commentary on Paul's Letter to Romans, p. 309]. Citing the example of Pharaoh, which Paul mentions in Romans 9:17, Lard continues, "Calvinism represents God as rearing up Pharaoh from his cradle to be the monster he was, and then as punishing him for being and doing precisely what he was impelled to be and do. No wonder the world is shocked with the blasphemy. The circumstance that so many have been deluded into the persuasion that the Bible teaches it, is exactly what has led so many to eschew the Bible. But the Bible knows it not" [ibid, p. 308]. "It is as astounding as it is painful to see men who are both scholarly and pious, strain the Word of God in order to make it subserve such monstrous tenets" [ibid, p. 311].
One of the legitimate questions we must ask ourselves is this: "If God acts unilaterally, according to His own will and purpose, does this not remove all basis for judgment, since man is not in a position to resist the divine will? Why, then, should man be blamed?" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 106]. What is the point of calling men to account for their actions if said actions and outcomes are predetermined by God? Why call people to repent and be saved if, in fact, their salvation or damnation are already determined by God before the creation of the universe? Why call people to choose life over death if that choice is already made for them, and if they have no freewill to even make that choice? Why is God "patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9) if He has already determined those saved and those damned? He does not desire ANY to perish, yet He willfully MADE some for that very end? He is patient, longing for some to repent and live, but such persons have no ability to choose, for they have no freewill, and that choice was made for them before they were born? This is lunacy!! "Could one believe that God was irritated against those who would be such as He had wished them to be? Would he need 'a grand long-suffering' to endure His own work in the state which He had Himself determined? Has He raised with one hand what He has overturned with the other? Such a doctrine ends by doing violence to that reason in the name of which it has outraged our moral sentiments" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, pt. 2 - Romans, p. 290].
One of the solutions here is to return to the context. Paul is not really discussing individuals per se in this whole section, rather he is discussing God's dealings with the people of Israel and those peoples/nations (the Gentiles) dwelling around them. In several places in his writings (as mentioned above) Paul uses a number of illustrations and metaphors to speak of how the Gentiles will be accepted into His loving embrace by their faith, and how, sadly, Israel time and again spurned His embrace by their unbelief. The Jews were not happy that God was willing to show grace, mercy, love and acceptance toward those peoples the Jews regarded as unworthy. Yet, Paul informs them God had the right to show mercy to whomever He wills. Indeed, He extends that mercy and grace to ALL men, and invites ALL to come, desiring for NONE to perish. Yet, it is by FAITH that this gift is accepted -- and that holds true for ALL men, both Jew and Gentile. Those who believe will be accepted; those who choose to believe not will experience ultimate damnation. The choice is ours; we have the freedom of will to make that choice. The outcome is indeed determined by God: those who believe will be saved; those who believe not will be damned. That determination has been made, for both individuals and nations, but the choice has been given to men and nations by God's sovereign will. "The apostle is speaking of men, not individually, but nationally; and it is strange that men should have given his words any other application" [Adam Clarke, Clarke's Commentary, vol. 6, p. 114]. Go back and reread this entire chapter (and other such passages already noted) and you will see that Paul's point is to validate God's decision to extend His grace to Jew and Gentile alike, and that he seeks to deal with the Jewish objections to God's salvific determination. "It is here again evident that it is not individuals, but nations, that are in view all along" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, pt. 2 - Romans, p. 268]. "The preparation referred to is not that of individuals for eternal life, but the preparation made was to save the Gentiles as well as Jews. ... making known His mercy in calling both Jews and Gentiles" [B. W. Johnson, The People's New Testament with Explanatory Notes, vol. 2, p. 49].
We should further note that "In verse 22 the crucial problem is to interpret correctly the expression 'prepared for destruction'" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 107]. This is an extremely important point, and it should be approached from a couple of important directions: what is the meaning of this word (and how has it been translated in our various versions of the Bible) and how is that meaning and application affected by the Greek grammatical construction? The phrase in question is: "vessels of wrath prepared for destruction" (Romans 9:22, NASB). The Greek word translated "prepared" is "katartizo," which means "a knitting together; a fitting together." It refers to something that is fashioned or fitted together and is thus ready for whatever purpose it has been formed. Clearly it presumes the agency of a forming force, but the word itself does not specify that agent. In the passage before us it is generally assumed (especially by those embracing the Calvinistic teaching) the fitting agent is God. Thus, GOD fitted them together for the purpose of destroying them with an outpouring of His wrath. However, the word also allows for another possibility, especially when used with respect to sentient beings rather than inanimate, insentient objects: rather than being acted upon, that which is being fashioned and fitted may actually be doing the fashioning and fitting upon itself. This is the difference in Greek between the passive (the former) and the middle (the latter) voices. The passive voice interpretation is that men and nations are without the freewill to make any of these life-altering determinations; rather they are made what they are (vessels of wrath or vessels of mercy), and dealt with accordingly, solely based upon God's sovereign predetermination. "You I formed for heaven; you I formed for hell; there's not a thing you can do about it, so don't you dare question Me!" The middle voice interpretation, however, is that men and nations "fit themselves" for the predetermined fates/destinies of all men and nations: life or death, salvation or destruction (and this is true both temporally and eternally). God knows those choices (foreknowledge), and He most certainly works through them to bring about His purposes, but He does not make those choices for us against our will (predetermination). He will certainly seek to influence our choices, and even seek to guide us in our choices through various positive and negative acts that impact us, but the choice is ultimately ours to make, and thus the consequences ours justly to bear. The question is, of course, which view is being taught in this passage?
Dr. A. T. Robertson correctly observes that this Greek term signifies "a state of readiness." These vessels (which I believe the context suggests are peoples -- Jew or Gentile -- not specifically individuals) are in a prepared state of readiness; they are ripe for what is coming (in this case: destruction), but as this Greek scholar then notes: "Paul does not say here that God did it or that they did it" [Word Pictures in the NT, e-Sword]. The word itself, with regard to its meaning, does not specify agency. That has to be assumed by the reader. Dr. Marvin Vincent, the equally noted Greek scholar, wrote: "Not fitted by God for destruction, but in an adjectival sense, ready, ripe for destruction, the perfect participle denoting a present state previously formed, but giving no hint of how it has been formed. An agency of some kind must be assumed" [Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 2, p. 107]. Both Dr. Robertson ("they are responsible") and Dr. Vincent ("the objects of final wrath had themselves a hand in the matter") opt for the Greek middle voice here, thus making the agency "the objects themselves." In other words, it wasn't God who created them for the purpose of destruction; it was they themselves who, by their persistent unbelief, fitted themselves for this fate! Albert Barnes (1798-1870) wrote, "In this place there is not the semblance of a declaration that 'God had prepared them, or fitted them for destruction.' It is a simple declaration that they were in fact suited for it, without making an affirmation about the manner in which they became so" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Again, agency must be assumed, but that determination of agency can't be made from the word itself. Thus, overall context and whether the word appears in the passive or middle voice will be critical to a correct understanding of the passage.
Consulting the various versions of the Bible will not prove overly helpful either, for they too can't agree on agency, and they reflect that conflicted theological state in their renderings. Some seem to suggest God as the fitting/forming agent: "made for destruction" (Revised Standard Version, also the NRSV), "designed for destruction" (Common English Bible, Kingdom of God Version, and The Message, which reads, "especially designed to show His angry displeasure"). These seem to imply an outside force (which is the passive voice). Others seem to suggest greater personal responsibility and choice on the part of the vessels of wrath: "who deserved to be destroyed" (Contemporary English Version), "who deserved punishment and were ripe for destruction" (Complete Jewish Bible), "who were ready to be destroyed" (Easy-to-Read Version), "that cry out to be destroyed" (J. B. Phillips' NT in Modern English). Most versions, however, leave the matter of agency out of it, as they should, and use such wording as "fitted for" or "prepared for," each of which leaves the door open for either a passive or middle voice understanding.
So, we come to the question of "voice" in the Greek language. "Voice is that property of the verbal idea which indicates how the subject is related to the action. ... voice is concerned with the relation of the action to the subject" [Drs. Dana & Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 155]. In the passive voice we find the subject of the sentence receiving the action of the verb. For example, "I was being formed/fitted" is passive, for the subject was being acted upon by an outside force. However, "I was forming/fitting myself" is middle voice, for the subject is directly participating in the action of the verb, and generally upon himself/herself. Were the "vessels of wrath" fitting or fashioning themselves for destruction (thus making themselves by their own willful actions "ripe for" that just fate), or were they being fitted or fashioned by another for destruction (thus being purposefully created or made for that fate)? It would seem the solution to this interpretive dilemma would simply lie in determining which form the Greek word "katartizo" takes in this text. That form is "katertismena," which is a perfect participle. The only problem is: this is a case of one of those strange rules in Greek where certain verbal endings, when they occur in use with certain tenses (and the perfect tense is one of them), can be either passive or middle voice. In other words, "Only in the future and aorist tenses are there distinct forms for the passive and middle voice. In the present, imperfect, perfect, and pluperfect tenses, the middle and passive forms are identical, ... thus for syntactical purposes a choice needs to be made. This is not always easy and needs to be done on a case-by-case basis" [Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the NT, p. 410]. Dr. Wallace then informs us that Romans 9:22 is one such "debatable and exegetically significant passage" [ibid, p. 417] where the reader must make a choice whether he/she believes the word is passive or middle, a choice which will greatly impact one's theology pertaining to God's sovereignty and man's freewill.
I appreciate immensely the following statement made by Charles Swindoll, who, although he certainly has some Calvinistic leanings in some of his theology, nevertheless states, "Don't be confused or misled by the phrase 'vessels of wrath prepared for destruction.' Many grammarians understand the Greek verb translated 'prepared' as being in 'the middle voice,' which indicates that the subject of the verb acts upon itself (reflexive action). So, it should be translated 'vessels of wrath fitted by themselves for destruction'" [Insights on Romans, p. 197]. Swindoll continues with this very important summation of what he believes Paul to be teaching in this passage from Romans (and I concur with his analysis): "At this point, let me add another clarification. Paul doesn't state this point here, but it's clearly implied. God does not compel anyone to sin (see James 1:13-16). Furthermore, God does not entice or encourage anyone's sin. In the case of Pharaoh, which is probably typical of everyone God hardens, a rebellious heart was 'given over' or judicially abandoned to the sin it lusted for. Pharaoh dedicated himself to evil in direct opposition to God's redemptive plan. This was Pharaoh's personal choice. He chose evil; God did not choose it for him. However, the Lord did 'harden' him -- that is, solidified his resolve to pursue the evil deeply embedded in his heart. And the Lord was completely righteous in doing so. He does not owe grace to anyone. Therefore, He was no less just to allow Pharaoh to remain in his chosen evil and to suffer the consequences of it. Moreover, the Lord turned Pharaoh's evil into an opportunity to assert His own sovereign claim over the Israelites and to demonstrate His power to triumph over evil. Paul recounts the divergent paths taken by Moses and Pharaoh to vindicate the righteous character of God. Their story does this in two ways. First, it demonstrates God's grace in that He intervened in the life of both men, giving both ample opportunity to humble themselves and accept His right of sovereignty. Second, it demonstrates God's justice, in that He responded to each man according to his own choice. The bottom line: God alone deserves credit for salvation; the condemned person is solely culpable for his or her punishment" [Insights on Romans, p. 196-197].
Some might think that this view that the perfect participle in Romans 9:22 should be understood as reflecting the middle voice is a rather recent position taken largely to combat Calvinism. That is not the case, however. Dr. Daniel Wallace, as do other sources he lists, points out: "The view that the perfect participle is middle, and therefore a direct middle, finds its roots in Chrysostom, and is later echoed by Pelagius. The idea would be that these vessels of wrath 'had prepared themselves for destruction'" [Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the NT, p. 418]. I appreciate Dr. Wallace being fair and balanced enough to state this truth, especially since he himself opts for the passive voice interpretation of the text. At least he is honest enough to admit that it is a matter of choice. The real determining factors, then, are the overall context of this text, and Paul's intent, and the overall biblical teaching on God's sovereignty and man's freewill (or lack thereof). One's views on these matters will influence one's choice. Like Moses E. Lard (1818-1880; see my tribute to this man in Reflections #582: "Lardism versus Legalism"), one of the great leaders in our own Stone-Campbell Movement, I do not embrace the tenets of Calvinism, and thus, as I read the thoughts of Paul in Romans 9, I truly believe that "'Ripe' or fitted for destruction, as applied to the wicked, does not signify ripened or fitted by God, but by their own evil deeds. They were the authors of their condition, not He" [Commentary on Paul's Letter to Romans, p. 312]. Matthew Henry (1662-1714) also concurs, saying that God "endured them with much long-suffering; exercising a great deal of patience towards them, letting them alone to fill up the measure of their sin, to grow till they were ripe for ruin, and so become fitted for destruction by their own sin and self-hardening. The reigning corruptions and wickedness of the soul are its preparedness and disposedness for hell: combustible matter, fit for the flames of hell. We can destroy ourselves fast enough, but we cannot save ourselves. Sinners fit themselves for hell, but it is God who prepares saints for heaven" [Commentary on the Whole Bible, e-Sword].
The patience and long-suffering and endurance of sinful men and nations is an expression of the grace, mercy and love of God. The unbelievers and the unrepentant have, by their own choices and attitudes and actions, "ripened" themselves for a day of destruction, making themselves "fit" fodder for the fiery furnace of God's ultimate wrath. Yet, God is patient with them, long-suffering, "not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9, NIV). God's desire is that all peoples (individually and collectively) should choose to embrace His gift of life, thus He is patient. "Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him" (2 Peter 3:15). Nevertheless, one day that patience will run out, and it will be a fearful day indeed: God's wrath will be poured out on this "day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men" (2 Peter 3:7); men and even nations who had fitted themselves for that justified outpouring of wrath. Paul warns the Jews that they would not be spared just because they were Jewish; nor would those lost be destroyed simply because they were Gentiles. Indeed, Paul warns, the Jews should take note that they might well find themselves the "vessels of wrath" and the Gentiles the "vessels of mercy," unless they embraced God's gift of grace by faith: a faith in His Son Jesus Christ (something many Gentiles were doing, but which many Jews were not). None of this could be laid at the feet of God, for both the temporal and eternal outcomes of these peoples were of their own choosing (evidenced by faith and its fruit, or the lack thereof).
Even though "ripe" for destruction, God displays His mercy in His long-suffering, desiring even the most obstinate to come to repentance and be saved from the destruction to come. In this delay He is just, as He is also just in the ultimate and final outpouring of His wrath, for the unbelieving and unrepentant truly have fitted themselves for it. "So immense is the mercy of God, so intense His purpose to make known its riches to men by living examples in order to draw them to this mercy, that He put off His wrath and His power and the destruction which these must visit on the obdurate. ... When men are ripe for judgment, God has the will to strike them down in judgment; yet He delays this in the interest of His grace. Foolish men may think that His threats of judgment are not serious; God is willing to run that risk. Displaying His grace is supreme to Him" [R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, p. 622]. He could have destroyed the world with a word, but instead He sent forth the Word in the form of flesh (John 1:14), that in Jesus we might see His glorious grace and experience His gift of salvation by that grace through faith. For those still resistant, for those fitting themselves for destruction, He continues to wait for you to choose life over death. May you do so soon, for that day of wrath draws near, and "it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31). May both individuals and nations (and especially our nation) give heed to this solemn warning.
From an Elder in Missouri:
I hope things are well in the great state of New Mexico. All is well in Missouri. The church here is doing fine and growing like it should. It's only because of God's precious grace that we at ------ have been blessed and able to spread the Good News in this area. I am so glad to be part of such a loving and forgiving group of saints! The Elders here have been studying the divorce topic and I passed along your book Down, But Not Out to them, and we now want to do a study together using your book as our guide. Therefore, I have been tasked with getting copies for everyone (there are six of us: four elders, two ministers). I thought since I know you so well that I could work out a few autographed copies for each of us for this study. Any chance you can make that happen?! Their names are enclosed. I appreciate you, brother. Keep in touch.
From a Reader in New Mexico:
Al, my husband and I are curious about what you think of the following article by Steve Lambert of Lees Summit, Missouri that we found on the Internet. It is titled: Never-Trumpers: Remember the Wisdom of Gamaliel. No hurry. Thank you in advance for your thoughts!
I'll refrain in this forum from getting into the "politics" of the article and from "taking sides" with respect to the upcoming election, although those who know me are aware of my political feelings (and they are rather strong). However, I will make an observation on the use of the advice given by Gamaliel, to which this author appealed. I thought Mr. Lambert had some good points, but I tend to think God expects us to be far more active, and even proactive, than this article seems to recommend. The guidance of Gamaliel in Acts 5:33f has been debated for centuries: some see it as wise, some as reckless. I personally see aspects of both. I did an in-depth study of Gamaliel's advice in Reflections #75 ("Guidance From Gamaliel: Analyzing the Aptness of His Advice"), to which I would refer those readers who might like to examine this matter further. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Missouri:
Brother Al, it has been a while since I have written to you or spoken with you on the phone. First, let me say how blessed I've been reading your Reflections. I hope you are doing well with your health following your cancer treatments, and that the grace of God will continue to bless you during this time. There have been a number of things that have happened with me since I first began reading your Reflections back in California. I am now retired and live in the beautiful state of Missouri. I still read your Reflections each week along with another brother in the Lord here who also gets them. On another note, I received a call recently from a brother asking me if Judas Iscariot partook of the Lord's Supper with the rest of the disciples, and, if so, what it meant to him. I thought he had left before Jesus instituted this memorial meal, but according to the Scriptures it seems he may not have. Am I wrong here? I need your help!
Missouri is indeed a beautiful state, and Shelly and I go there every year for vacation (as our middle son and his family live there, as do a number of friends and other relatives). Yes, I am doing quite well, and slowly but surely regaining my energy, following 9 weeks of daily radiation treatments (which worked, by the way; we are grateful for all the many prayers, and for the abundant outpouring of God's grace in response to those requests; He is good!). As for whether or not Judas Iscariot was at the last Passover meal our Lord celebrated with the Twelve, the answer is: he was. Although there is some minor difference of opinion among a few biblical scholars as to precisely when he departed the event, most feel he was still present when Jesus took some of the bread and the wine (the third cup) and suggested a deeper spiritual significance to these emblems for those coming into the New Covenant which He was about to establish. Luke 22:21, for example, has Jesus saying, "But the hand of him who is going to betray Me is with Mine on the table." It should be noted that Jesus said this after instituting what we have later come to call "the Lord's Supper" (vs. 17-20). This timing is also confirmed in John 13. What exactly all of this meant to Judas at that time (or even the other disciples, for that matter) is hard to say, and is the subject of some speculation among readers of the account. I'm sure it came to mean more for the Eleven in subsequent years as they grasped the grace of the event more fully. Tragically, time would run out for Judas long before that greater spiritual appreciation could occur. For those who might like to know more about the life of Judas Iscariot, including some of the myths and legends that arose after his demise, I would encourage you to read Reflections #260 ("Judas Iscariot: In-Depth Reflective Analysis"). He was truly a fascinating biblical figure in many ways. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in North Carolina:
"Questioning God's Judgment: Reflecting on the Midianite Massacre" (Reflections #694) was a hard article to read, and I imagine a hard one to write, as well. This is not the first time I have questioned God's judgment of people: the Flood, the destruction of Jericho (and many other cities in Canaan), Sodom & Gomorrah ... and don't get me started on the treatment of Job. The God of the OT certainly challenges my faith, whereas the God of the NT uplifts me and forgives my constant sinfulness without fail. I shared this current Reflections article with our Sunday School class (a solid group of God-fearing Methodists), and I also encouraged them to sign up for your Reflections articles. I hope they will do so. On a related note, the General Conference for the United Methodist Church is currently underway, and it will continue for the next two weeks. This is a conference that meets every 4 years, and the delegates will consider revisions to the "Book of Discipline." Our pastor and one of our prominent members is at the conference. One of the social issues up for revision is the issue of homosexuality. Currently, the "Book of Discipline" states: "Homosexuality is inconsistent with biblical teaching" (I'm not sure of the exact wording, but this is close). There are liberal digressives, however, who wish to change the church's stance on this, even to the point of recognizing homosexual marriages and ordaining homosexual pastors. If this goes through, it will split our church. It may even split my family. So, I covet your prayers, brother, for this conference: that God's will be done to the glory of His universal church here on earth. Love you, brother!
I appreciate this reader sharing my article with his Sunday School class. My studies are meant to be shared, and any reader should feel free to do so wherever and whenever and with whomever he or she feels these studies could be of benefit in furthering awareness of God's grace and love, and furthering appreciation and acceptance of salvation and freedom through faith in the free gift of His Son. As for the challenge facing the people of God today regarding homosexuality, I encouraged this reader to pass along to his pastor and the prominent member my following two studies, which I pray they might find helpful during the conference they are attending:  "The Nature/Nurture Dilemma: A Reflective, Respectful Response to Saints Struggling with Homosexuality" (Reflections #305) and  "Letter to a Homosexual Couple: How Would Our Lord Have Us Respond to Those Engaged in an Anti-Biblical Lifestyle?" (Reflections #668). -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Michigan:
As I read the book of Joshua in the Bible I am also troubled by the genocide I see there, a genocide largely, it seems, against peoples who never had any previous contact with Israel. I see what seems to be parallels with the way ISIS operates and then justifies their actions! The issue is not that ISIS is wrong (of course they are!). Rather, the issue is that they truly think they're right, and they could easily use all the same arguments Joshua used, for they too are convinced they are just following God's commands! I really struggle to come to grips with this!!
From a Reader in Nevada:
Al, I am so thankful for your positive response to the radiation treatments, and I am thankful to God that He took a hand in this good response! Brother, your latest article ("Questioning God's Judgment") is terrific!! Man does way too much thinking, and in so doing has lifted himself above God's judgments and actions, thus sitting in judgment on them! Bless us, brother, with more of your writings reminding us of the fact that we are only the dust of our Creator! Yes, He created us with curiosity and a desire to "search out a matter," but "it is also the glory of God to conceal a matter" at times from our understanding (Proverbs 25:2). I appreciate your attention to this.
From a Reader in Arizona:
Thank you, Al, for relating and addressing this troubling account from the book of Numbers. Thank you also for submitting your mind and heart to the Lord who is Holy. Deuteronomy 29:29 is a comfort when our minds can't understand: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever." Perhaps the things we cannot understand serve as a test that shows either our humility or pride. I look forward to seeing you face to face!
From a Reader in Georgia:
Looking at the account in Numbers, I don't see God's specific instruction to single out any specific type of person to kill. But, one only needs to flip over a few chapters to 1 Samuel 15 where He specifically says to kill everybody, including "both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey" (vs. 3). However, like you, I certainly lack the fullness of information on the people and the depravity of their culture that God had when He issued that command. For me, it hardly makes much difference whether one is destroyed now or later by a judgment of God, except for the harm done by them between now and then. It's possible that even Paul struggled with this idea that God could be so complete in His destruction when he, by inspiration, wrote, "What if God, desiring to show His wrath and to make known His power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which He has prepared beforehand for glory...?" Paul intimates that perhaps some people were created to be destroyed. Wow!! Unlike Job, I think I'll just stick to the fact that God is just, and then let somebody else argue the point! Thank you for having the courage to take on this study of the Midianite massacre in the book of Numbers. There are not many Sunday School lessons on this passage, much less from the pulpit! Blessings!
As this reader (who is a dear friend) and other readers are now aware, I was motivated by his mention of Romans 9:22 to take a closer look in this current issue of Reflections at what the apostle Paul wrote and perhaps intended in that passage in his epistle to the Roman brethren, for it too has often been the source of considerable confusion in the church throughout the centuries. I appreciate him "nudging" me in that direction, for I truly love an exegetical challenge, even if at the end of the process I'm still often left scratching my head in puzzlement! -- Al Maxey
From Jay Guin in Alabama:
I was fascinated by your post on the "genocide" of the Midianites (Reflections #694). I disagree with none of it. But, I thought I would dig around in the reference materials to see if there might be other ways of coping with the obvious difficulties of the passage. I'll post a couple of articles looking at various theories for how to cope with this beginning May 28-ish. You are invited to join in the discussion that I'm sure will ensue. It's a tough passage, and I appreciate very much your bringing it to the forefront!
Jay Guin is a dear brother in Christ and an excellent thinker and writer. As an attorney and an elder in the church, he brings an interesting perspective to bear on his subject matter. I would encourage people to check out and follow his writings, which may be found on his blog site: One In Jesus. You will be edified and encouraged, and your thinking will be challenged as well, which is a good thing! -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Tennessee:
In my thinking there is not much difference in the slaughter of the innocent Midianites during a time of war than there was in the Allied bombing of German cities and the dropping of two A-bombs on Japan, actions that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians! Our own forefathers had no hesitancy in rendering judgment and imposing punishment upon enemy armies and their families and fellow countrymen.
From a Reader in Virginia:
That was a very interesting article ("Questioning God's Judgment"). We should remember: it is, after all, His universe, and He has the "Big Picture." We only have tunnel vision!
From a Reader in West Virginia:
Good article, Al. Thanks also for the important reminder in this article that ancient Eastern texts do not necessarily require syncing with modern Western wooden literalism (i.e., "all the males," etc.).
From an Author in Texas:
Al, your Reflections article on questions raised by the Midianite massacre is excellent. It sort of clears up my thinking regarding the human sacrifice that Jephthah promised God. And when the first one to walk out of that door was his own dear daughter, Scripture says that he did what he had promised to do. I can't remember where this is recorded in the Bible, but you probably do. I have heard the Church of Christ position on this, but I would really like to read your take on that event. Keep up the good work, Al.
That tragic event is found in Judges 11, and I did an article on it several years ago (December 9, 2005), which those of you who are interested may read in Reflections #224 ("Jephthah's Reckless Vow: A Reflective Analysis of Judges 11"). -- Al Maxey
From a Minister in New Delhi, India:
Exodus 31:1-2 reads, "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 'Take vengeance on the Midianites for the children of Israel. Afterward you shall be gathered to your people.'" Where does the Lord speak of slaughtering the women and infants? I was in an online debate about this very incident where the skeptics and atheists branded the Lord using unspeakable terminology. Those Bible believers who were actively engaged in the debate found it difficult to justify this slaughter, and also the keeping of all the virgin girls for use by the Israelites. Yet, when I think of what humans did to Jesus, and what they have done to countless followers of Jesus (including pregnant women, virgins, infants), I can somewhat understand God's wrath and dealings with those hostile to Him and His people, however horrific those dealings may be (or seem to us). We know how cruely some people hostile to Christ and His people treat us today! There is a lot of persecution of Christians going on in my own country right now, and the enemies of God are very severe in the outpouring of their hatred. We know that God is just and right in the way He deals with these enemies. The enemies of the cross are severe in their abuse of the lambs who wholly depend on their Shepherd, and we trust the Shepherd to take care of His flock as He sees fit. Thank you for your Reflections; they truly cause us to think, and much more.
From a Minister in Texas:
I would like to stipulate there is another way to solve the mysteries of the God-dilemma you presented this week in your reflection on Numbers 31. In this particular case, I read about the terrible slaughter of men, women, and children by the tribes of Israel with their rationalization for it being, "God told us to do it." In other words, many of the things I read in Scripture seem to be reflecting human shortcomings and not God's. They, like us, tend to blame God for our mistakes. I do not believe the God of Love demands that innocents are killed as part of His master plan for the universe and humanity. I agree that creating humanity to kill, torture, and enslave humanity is not the work of a loving Father. Surely, our Bible is the work of people describing their experiences with God, and not everything written by men in the Bible is, in fact, exactly what God planned or directed. Even Peter agrees that Scripture is often hard to understand, just as Paul's letters are said by Peter to be confusing. Yet, our God is not a God of evil or confusion. We are inspired by His interactions with us, and we try to capture our experiences through stories and words. But perhaps we can see many places where people make bad decisions and leave them at the doorstep of God. I too do not question the wisdom or decisions of God. I do, however, accept the frailties of men and their predilection to avoid the consequences of their actions by blaming God for their own bad behavior.
From a Missionary in Peru:
Thanks for your recent article ("Questioning God's Judgment: Reflecting on the Midianite Massacre"), and for your honesty in trying to come to grips with some of the ways of the Lord. I remember reading the book of Job and thinking, "Why did God let Satan kill all his children in this cosmic challenge with Satan? Were they just 'dispensable pieces' in this cosmic game and challenge?" We all have questions and difficulties; the biblical psalmists had many. Recently, here in Peru, a Christian missionary's wife died of a brain tumor, leaving him with three children to look after. Another missionary, who took early retirement to come to Peru to serve the church, had to return to his home country in less than a year. He was diagnosed with a tumor on his spine (he died not long after returning home). Another missionary was drowned while on holiday at the beach. A young Christian man came out to Peru to help in the churches. As he was playing football with some kids, he went to retrieve the ball which had landed on a roof; he fell off and died. We could all recount many events like these, and I find these, and many others, even more difficult to understand than the one you related in your article from the book of Numbers. At least in that account I can find some pointers and indicators as to why God ordered Moses to kill the Midianites, even though God does not explain to us (just as Job was never given an explanation) the full reasons for His actions. Such certainly does test our faith!
I think the main problem with human nature is that we have too much of an exalted view of human goodness (so-called) and a very low view of sin and the holiness of God. In our society these days almost every vestige of decency and purity is virtually gone! We even have thousands of pastors, we are told, who are addicted to Internet pornography. So, there are thousands of pastors who can enter a pulpit and preach each week without a conscience regarding the vileness of their actions. The Midianites, as you stated, had corrupted the people of Israel into lives of gross immorality, yet as a society today we don't seem to be too much concerned at that kind of behavior. In fact, it is almost celebrated these days! There is a web site that exists solely for married people to meet other married people with whom they may commit adultery (even having multiple partners)! My point is, we don't have a high view of God's holiness, and thus we are not perceiving the truth that God abhors sin to such an extent that He is willing to wipe out a whole community so as to cut off the head of the serpent. As a society, we are so deep in iniquity, and so insensitive to it, that we'll quibble over God's judgments while permitting the most vile acts to occur around us with little thought given to them! We say we're sensitive to human suffering, but who is concerned about the honor of God and defending His holiness?! I believe that if we had a higher view of God's holiness and righteousness we would understand and appreciate far more the severity of His judgments. Frankly, we would all be dead but for His grace and kindness. Our society deserves swift and certain judgment; just like the Midianites. I can only pray that I will become far more unsettled and angry at man's sin than the Lord's just dealings with those sinners and their sin.
SPECIAL: New Book by Timothy Archer
I received a very nice surprise, and an unexpected one, the other day in the mail. A package was waiting for me from a devoted servant of the Lord I have known for a number of years: Timothy Archer. It contained his new book (actually two books: the second being a workbook that accompanies the main book) titled "Church Inside Out." It was autographed and contained an encouraging handwritten message: "Al, your ministry of study and writing has blessed many. May this be a blessing to you. To His glory, Tim Archer." I wrote and thanked him and asked if he would mind if I let people know about this new book and where to order it. He wrote back, "Sure, Al, that would be great. Honestly, the books were just a gift to thank you for all that you've shared with me and so many others over the years. Blessings on you and yours. Grace and peace, Tim Archer." The book is a very practical 200 page guide to community evangelism and involvement, with a 90 page workbook as a second volume. It is published by 21st Century Christian in Nashville, TN and may be ordered from them or from Tim. His web site is www.timothyarcher.com and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Tim, who is fluent in Spanish, was a missionary in Argentina for 15 years, and now serves as the coordinator of the Spanish-speaking ministries with Hope For Life, which is a ministry of Herald of Truth. He is the author of three previous books, including a recent work titled "A History of Churches of Christ in Cuba" which he co-authored with Cuban preacher Tony Fernandez. In addition to his aforementioned work, he also currently preaches for the bilingual ministry at the University Church of Christ in Abilene, TX. I highly recommend to you this new work (and his previous works). -- Al Maxey
If you would like to be added to or removed from this
mailing list, contact me and I will immediately comply.
If you are challenged by these Reflections, then feel
free to send them on to others and encourage them
to write for a free subscription. These articles may all
be purchased on CD. Check the ARCHIVES for
details and past issues of these weekly Reflections: