The Mystery of Faith

It is an encouraging and exciting thing to know something about what God promises can be our life beyond the grave. It is also an easy thing to assume that everybody will get to enjoy it. Thinking that someone could be banished from God and spend endless years in hopelessness and agony is too much for many to even consider. We don’t want to believe this, so we just won’t. Still, Jesus said this:

13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matthew 7:13-14

It is the worst news in the Bible. I would love to ignore it, but I can’t.

If you only knew this one passage you would think that getting into Heaven was by some difficult form of self-effort. It isn’t. Oddly, the way that people are forgiven of their sins and given a place with God is a gift. To top it off, it is God’s desire to give this gift to all. The whole process of making this gift ours is a mixture of easy to impossible.

Life with God is so valuable that to earn it one must be completely sinless (impossible). Since no human is, God created a plan where the Son of God would become a human and be sinless for us. (Easy for us) He would also fulfill a legal requirement that sins be punished by “eternal death”–being forsaken by God (Easy for us, miserable for Jesus). Jesus’ voluntary, sacrificial death is sufficient to cover any sin by anybody. But it doesn’t.

The last step in the necessary process is that God connects a person to Jesus in some mysterious way. The Bible states (1 Corinthians 2:14) people in their natural state (messed up by our sinful nature) cannot create or accept this connection. The Holy Spirit has to be able to create this connection for us. On the surface, creating this connection looks like an intellectual process. You tell a person about their sinful condition, share what Jesus did and why, proclaim to them God’s promise of forgiveness, and baptize them in the name of Jesus. They in turn believe it and are saved. While our intellect is engaged in the process, in the end believing isn’t a choice we make. It is the Holy Spirit doing something.

This is the mysterious part. What exactly does the Holy Spirit do? Why doesn’t this work for everyone? Why can’t the Holy Spirit create this connection all the time? Is it that people hold intellectual objections to this narrative? Might it be something else like genetics or brain structure? It is not for a lack of love on God’s part.

Whatever the barrier is, it can break at a time that you would never expect. Super-intellectuals, who were committed atheists, have come to faith and even they can’t really explain it. Hardened criminals have been moved to repentance and saved. People committed to other world religions have had dreams of Jesus, or miraculous healings, or just heard the Gospel and become believers. And yet others, who seem to be on the brink, just can’t believe.

For instance, Thomas Nagel, a renown professor of philosophy from New York University, in his book Mind and Cosmos, argues convincingly against the materialist, Neo-Darwinian worldview. He even states that he wished he could believe the Christian worldview of friends, but in the end, he can’t do it. It is a mystery why not. The fact that people do come to faith unexpectedly is both hopeful and aggravating. As somebody who wants others to have eternal life, you don’t always know what to do or expect.

If you are an unbeliever and somehow are reading this article, I would tell you that there is a lot at stake for you. You can’t change who you are. I can’t force you to believe in Jesus. But I would challenge you to read Jesus’ story in one of the four Gospels in the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John). It doesn’t take that long. It’s a worthwhile exercise even for cultural awareness. I would further challenge you to think about why you don’t believe this story and why you do believe whatever you do believe about this universe, life and death. It is my hope that God himself would work in this process and surprise us both in the best way possible.

Who Will Be Saved and Who Could Have Been?

The Bible is a considerably large body of knowledge, still there are times when I think, “So little information and so many questions.” I wish the Bible gave me more on a specific topic, but I and everybody else are left with a mystery.

Today’s mystery for your consideration is a seeming contradiction within the pages of Scripture. One set of passages seem to suggest that God will only save a rather small minority of people which He foreknew. Another set of passages seem to suggest that God wants all to be saved and that there is hope that over time a significant portion of those people can be saved. Those are opposing views at least on the surface. They have given birth to different theological traditions with different approaches to ministry. I believe that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself. Apparent contradictions are just failures to understand. How do these passages come together?

Here are some of the passages that suggest a very limited salvation:

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

Matthew 7:13-14

Jesus doesn’t just give good news. This is arguably the worst news from his mouth. Another to consider:

 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
    eyes that would not see
    and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”

Romans 11:6-8

This passage contains the term “elect”. The elect are those God chooses for eternal life and actually foreknows before the creation of the world. Here, speaking specifically about certain generations among the Jews, it also speaks of God shutting down or at least not opening up these people to saving faith.

There are more passages like these, but for the sake of brevity, let’s show some of the opposite.

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:3-4

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.

2 Peter 3:9

The 2 Peter passage has always bothered me. If Matthew 7 above is true, aren’t we not sending more people to damnation the longer God let’s this world move on? Also, does God really desire everyone to be saved when he clearly declared that certain groups of people had crossed a line and would never be included?

The Apostle Paul, author of two of these passages on either side of this issue, declares at one point, “The mystery of faith is great”. Even he struggled to understand how this all goes together. So we should set our expectations of full understanding rather low.

Here are the parts that can be drawn from this mystery. God never created human beings to damn a portion of them. He takes no pleasure in doing it. God is a being who strongly abides by his own law. He doesn’t compromise it because he can. As such, the giving of a truly free will to our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, has resulted in billions of people who cannot know or believe God at all on our own. Further, the majority will not come into a necessary faith in God’s Son even with the help of God’s Holy Spirit. Why not? I know not.

Certain generations or people groups have proven so corrupt and provocative to God that God has declared that he would not even try with them. These blanket disownings are found in the Old Testament, but the main one affecting certain Jews persists until Jesus’ time at least. This suggests that the problem could be genetic at the core of it.

The toughest thing to wrap your mind around is how can God foreknow and call “elect” those who will be saved before the creation of the world and in “real time” act and ask us to act as though anybody and everybody can be saved? This where we have to admit that we cannot fathom what it is like to be God.

It is pretty clear from Scripture that people will be damned even though Jesus died for everyone’s sin. The breakdown in saving everyone comes in making the connection between people and Jesus. Forming that bond has its limits. The result is significant losses and even though it deeply grieves God and everybody who cares, God will not use his unlimited power to fix this.

It is not right to develop a form of fatalism in response to the first set of passages I quoted. Unlike God, I do not know who will believe the promise that a person can have eternal life with God and immediate forgiveness of their sinfulness simply by believing God’s promise and baptism into Jesus’ death. I will only continue to proclaim this to people because I care about them and hope that they can believe.

The way God dealt with the problem of human sin through Jesus was a surprise. Maybe God still has another surprise to deal with unbelief.

May you be one of the elect.

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