The John 3:16 Conference- Steve Lemke on Irresistible Grace

November 11, 2008

The fourth TULIP presentation of the conference came from Dr. Steve Lemke, provost of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, as he sought out to refute Irresistible Grace. This again, in the spirit of Dr. Allen, was more of a pep rally than an actual scholarly talk, but we will do our best to dissect the substance of what was said.

Dr. Lemke started out with two questions. The first question he asked was, Why did the Dutch Reformed church react against the Remonstrants? The answer, it was partly because of the irresistible grace issue. Second, Why was/is it that men don’t convert under God’s grace? The Remonstrants believe it was some failure on man’s part.

Following these questions, and a reading from the actually statements of the Remonstrants, Dr. Lemke attempted to explain the Calvinist position (a tactic unfortunately avoided by most at the conference). He explained that to the Calvinist there are two Gospel calls: an outward call and an inward call. The outward call, he states, is general and to everyone, and never effects salvation. The inward call, to a Calvinist, is an irresistible call that some who hear the outward call also receive. He then goes on to say that some Calvinists do not like speaking of the word “irresistible,” defensing this with an uncited series of quotes by John Piper.

From here Dr. Lemke began to offer arguments against the Calvinist conception of Irresistible Grace. He points to Proverbs 1.22-26, Jeremiah 32.33, Luke 7.30, and Acts 7.51. He read these, but then just let the words stand without giving any further argument for them. He then gave what he sees as Jesus’ view, that being his laments found in Matthew 23.37 and Luke 13.24. He also cited the parable of the prodigal son and the comment that Paul kicks against the goads (Acts 26.14) as further instances of people resisting God’s grace/call.

Dr. Lemke then offered up three concerns for “extreme” Calvinists as it pertains to the doctrine of Irresistible Grace. The first and third concerns were only minimally emphasized, those being that holding to irresistible grace may lead to a denial of the necessity for conversion and a weakening of the significance of preaching and evangelism. The concern he spent the greatest time on was that he believes holding to irresistible grace reverses the biblically stated order of salvation. To defense this he referred to John 3.14-15 (cf. Numbers 21.9), John 5.40, and John 20.31, and of course, John 3.16.

Dr. Lemke then closed his presentation by appealing to a Christ who humbled himself on the cross, God’s maximal sovereignty and his maximal glory, entreating us to pursue a proper biblical view of grace.

I will start out in my response to Dr. Lemke by saying that, of all the speakers, I do believe that he had the best start with what was probably the most accurate rendering of an actual Calvinist viewpoint presented at any time during the conference. That said, I believe his argumentation for why it is the wrong viewpoint was often victim to a lack of proper understanding of terms.

In referencing the verses he did to say that God’s grace/call can be resisted, I think we are capable to provide explanation for most if not all of his supposed refutations.

  • Proverbs 1.22-26; if one reads the larger context of this passage, say starting at verse 20, then it is clear that this is not a verse against irresistible grace, but is actually a passage about wisdom. It really is a shame that Dr. Lemke missed this, as the context could not possibly be clearer.
  • Jeremiah 32.33; this again, just using the wider context and understanding of what’s being said, is clearly not a verse against irresistible grace, but is actually a verse depicting Israel’s disobedience to the Law delivered to them. Recall, irresistible grace is in reference to an individual receiving an effectual inward call, an act which we would be too hard pressed to force into this situation.
  • Luke 7.30; once more we find a verse, taken in the appropriate context, which gives no problem to the Calvinist. Here we find a statement that the Pharisees and lawyers “rejected the purpose of God for themselves.” But does that mean they resisted an inward call or an outward one? Clearly it has to be an outward call, which all Calvinists will say is resistible, since the call they are said to be rejecting is the outward call of John the Baptist to his baptism of repentance, an act which is not salvific in nature and thus could not fall under the Irresistible Grace moniker.
  • Acts 7.51; this verse actually seems to hold a problem for Irresistible Grace, but once more I believe we can come to a proper understanding of it which smooths that criticism away. Looking at Stephen’s full speech we see a theme arise: the Israelites continual rejection of those sent by God (Acts 7.9, 27, 35, 39). Thus, when Stephen gets to verse 51 we should rightly hear him as saying to the people “Jesus is the prophet whom Moses spoke of, sent by God, and once more you have rejected him by murdering him on the cross.” This again does not appear to be spoken as a rejection of an inward call, but of at best an outward call, and more appropriately of a prophesy which they should have known not to reject.
  • Matthew 23.37; this, instead of an argument against Irresistible Grace, I think would be better understood as a condemnation of Jerusalem’s disobedience in light of outward calls to repentance as giving in 2 Chronicles 7.13-14.
  • Luke 13.24; I’m not sure what point Dr. Lemke meant to make with this verse, since it actually seems to reinforce the Calvinist position of Total Depravity, confirming that interpretation of John 6.44, while having nothing to say towards Irresistible Grace.

Now, moving from Dr. Lemke’s verse in opposition to Irresistible Grace, we head to his concerns.  To begin with, his concerns that holding Irresistible Grace leads to a denial for the necessity of conversion and weakens the significance of preaching and evangelism were once again assertions that went unchallenged and yet are a total misrepresentation of Calvinistic thought and application.  To his credit, Lemke said that this was what is true of more extreme Calvinists, but using Geisler’s terminology and Lemke’s own comment that a hyper-Calvinist is anyone more Calvinist than you are, one would imagine that the more extreme Calvinists would include 5-pointers for Lemke and most people in the audience.

As for his criticism that Irresistible Grace reverses the biblical order of salvation, the major issue is this: Dr. Lemke, in arguing that regeneration follows faith, uses verses showing eternal life is a result of faith to prove his point.  But to anyone who is familiar with the biblical terminology, it can not be that ‘regeneration’ is equal to ‘having eternal life.’  The primary place I would point to for this is John 3.3: “Jesus answered him, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.’“  So this verse gives us a picture where regeneration is necessary seeing the kingdom and hence for eternal life, not, as Lemke claims, that it is coincident with it.  Going further, we can nail this home by looking at Titus 3.4-7:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Thus, following the logical progression, (1) “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,” (2) “according to his own mercy,” (3) “[God] saved us,” (4) “so that [thus being saved] we might become heirs according to the hope of (i.e. receive) eternal life.”  Therefore, once more, we see that it is regeneration which leads to our glorification, not which is our glorification.  (Note: it is also the case that regeneration is something which happens on earth to this body, whereas the receiving of eternal life is something which occurs after death and judgment.)

In conclusion, I feel that we have been able to properly refute Dr. Lemke’s argument against Irresistible Grace and thus, at least from his argumentation, have no reason to question it biblical basis.  I would also like to note that I think it is frustrating to have a man who is developing quite a record of slippery scholarship at such a high post in a Southern Baptist seminary.  Though I do not agree with the non-Calvinistic convictions, it is to be expected that that position would be best defended by persons whose arguments are found to be more than mere misrepresentations and proof-texting.


The John 3:16 Conference- David Allen on Limited Atonement (Part 2)

November 11, 2008

In yesterday’s post we overviewed Dr. David Allen’s argument against Limited Atonement and I began my response, giving a defense for understanding Edwards as a five point Calvinist and not as a four pointer like Dr. Allen claimed.

Moving on, I would want to address Allen’s exegesis next. Over all, I will be the first to admit that I am not a fan of running immediately to the ‘All’, ‘Whole’, and ‘Many’ arguments as an argument for or against limited atonement, seeing as how both sides can use these texts to say what they want, usually without much weight. Instead, what I think is more fruitful is to actually investigate the nature of the atonement, which I think will be sufficient to show that it can be no other than a limited act if not all are to be saved. That said, I won’t be doing that in this post, but in the next week or so look for a small series in which I attempt to actually execute this argument.

Observing then the attempted exegesis on the “Christ died for his sheep” and “Christ died for the church” passages, to claim that these don’t preclude a universal atonement based upon their silence on the matter is a violation of the pragmatic use of implication in linguistics. Dr. Allen used the sentence “I love my wife” to demonstrate that this does not necessarily mean the negative assertion that he does not love anyone else, but only the positive assertion that he does love his wife. Yet this is not the same, particularly as in John 10.11, 14-15. This passage states that “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . . I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” It is true that Christ never says “I lay down my life for the sheep and none other,” but the context of the passage, Christ’s continual emphasis on his special role of protection and caring for the sheep, his intimate knowledge of who they are, screams that Christ laying down his life for the sheep is a favored and particular act. Otherwise, if Christ means only that he lays down his life for the sheep as a subset of all people, then the repetition of Christ’s distinct relationship to the sheep becomes superfluous. Why does Christ having a reason for dying for his sheep matter if he dies for everyone? If Christ does die for everyone is there no reason for why he would die for those who aren’t his sheep? To avoid the implication of a limitation on Christ’s dying is to make this passage more general than it intends itself to be.

Thirdly, in Dr. Allen’s attempts to give a defense for why the free offer of the Gospel means telling people that Christ died for them, I don’t think the evidence he offered was very convincing. Citing 1 Corinthians 15.1-5, Dr. Allen said that his view is supported by the passage “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures” (v.3). Yet, in this context, whether limited or unlimited atonement is true, the fact that Paul delivered to these people that Christ died for their sins is accurate because they are presupposed to be believers, a status which both camps would argue makes them recipients of the atonement. Thus, it is inconclusive whether Paul used the “God loves you and died for your sins” approach or the more Calvinistic “God gave his only begotten Son to die for sin so that if you believe on him you may have eternal life” (this being John Piper’s formulation) which is just as free, but does not obligate God to atoning for any but those who believe.

As for his other text, Acts 3.26, this is what it says: “God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” Dr. Allen’s argument on this is that, if Christ was “raised up” and “sent to [them] first” to turn “every one of [them] from [their] wickedness” then this necessarily means that his death and resurrection provided an atonement which was freely available to all who are being spoken of. Yet this interpretation neglects the simple context of the passage. What we see here is that Christ being “raised up” is the completion of verses 22 and 23 which say, “Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’” Thus, the raising up was not from the dead once atonement was made, but was as a prophet (teacher) to call the Jews to repentance, as Christ declares of himself in Matthew 15.24 (“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”) and John states of him in John 1.11 (“He came to his own“). Thus, the Jews were to be blessed by receiving Christ as a prophet to bring them to repentance under the Law, and yet instead they murdered him (Acts 3.13-15). Therefore, once again, this passage should not be understood as a justification for including an unlimited atonement in the free offer of the Gospel.

Finally, I would like to address Dr. Allen’s closing comments about the consequences of holding to a limited view of the atonement. Dr. Allen stated that limited atonement undermines God’s salvific will, undermines evangelistic zeal, removes the ability to tell a sinner Christ died for them, affects the way a preacher may speak to his congregation, attacks the idea of giving evangelistic invitations, and that “should the Southern Baptist Convention move toward 5-point Calvinism, such a move would be away from, and not toward, the gospel.” As we have already shown, the way in which limited atonement affects a preachers ability to speak to his congregation and the way we evangelize is only in a sense which to speak that way would have no justification in Scripture to begin with. (Resting on the Bible also restricts us from telling people that God has purple unicorns lined up for us in heaven, but oddly people don’t seem so determined to want to say this to nonbelievers.) Neither does the giving of evangelistic invitations stand on solid biblical ground.

The idea that limited atonement undermines God’s salvific will came only as an assertion, not a defended point, and following the argument of Edwards as quoted in the previous post, one can see that it in no way actually does this.

Finally, to state that limited atonement affects evangelistic zeal, and that a “move toward 5-point Calvinism . . . would be [a move] away from . . . the gospel,” though a common theme at the conference, and basically its initial impetus, was an accusation that was only ever stated but never hashed out. The fact that the greatest preachers and missionaries of all time held four- and five-point Calvinistic convictions seems lost on the speakers at this gathering, who simply hide behind the idea that these people were only evangelistic in spite of their convictions. This, to me, is the biggest problem with the current debate: large numbers of SBC ministers and deacons, who only know horror stories of legalists masquerading as Calvinists, coming into this with their own misconceptions of what Calvinism is and stirring up conflict with brothers that they are never actually willing to engage.

Overall, I felt Dr. Allen’s presentation against Limited Atonement, admittedly the hardest point to defend in Scripture, was poor and seemed more focused on rallying the base against a perceived evil instead of giving a strong biblical argument in opposition to it.