QUESTION: Dr. Cottrell, can you explain the meaning of Acts 13:48? It sounds very much like Calvinism to me.
ANSWER: This text summarizes the response of the Gentiles to the powerful preaching of the Apostle Paul at Antioch of Pisidia: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (ESV).
As usually translated, it is very true that this passage supports the key Calvinist doctrine of unconditional predestination (the “U” in TULIP). This is the idea that in his eternal pre-creation counsels and plans, God surveyed all the human beings whom he would ultimately bring into existence, all of whom as a result of Adam’s sin would become guilty of sin and condemned to hell. By God’s decree this universal sinfulness would also involve universal total depravity, including the loss of all free-will ability to turn toward God for salvation. The only way anyone could ever be saved was if God worked some basic supernatural change within the human heart that would not only make faith possible but would also actually implant that faith within the heart as an irresistible and irrevocable gift. (This last point is the Calvinist notion of irresistible grace—the “I” in TULIP).
Thus as Calvinists see it, God in his eternal counsels surveyed all these future helpless sinners and determined to save some of them; and he also determined precisely which ones he would save and which ones he would allow to remain in their sin and be condemned to eternity in hell. Why he decided to choose (elect) these specific sinners and not the others is not known to us. The fact is that he unconditionally chose some, and appointed or predestined them to become believers and thus inherit eternal life.
We can see how the usual translations of Acts 13:48 support this Calvinist view: only those appointed (ESV, NIV, NASB, NKJV) or destined (NRSV) or pre-destined (Weymouth) or ordained (KJV, ASV) or chosen (TEV) for eternal life actually became believers.
The question is this: how can this be reconciled with the Arminian (non-Calvinist) view? The key lies in the form of the main Greek verb, tassō. The basic meaning of this verb is “to place, to order, to appoint, to ordain, to determine, to arrange in order.” As it appears in this text, the verb form is the participle tetagmenoi. It is simply assumed that this is the PASSIVE form of the verb, thus: “to be appointed, to be ordained, to be destined.” What is often forgotten is that in the Greek language, often the passive and the middle form of verbs are spelled exactly the same way. That is the case here. The word tetagmenoi can also be the MIDDLE form of the verb. Here is the main point: that is how it should be understood in Acts 13:48.
What does this verse mean, then? The middle voice of a verb in Greek is sometimes used in a reflexive sense. The idea is that the action of the verb is something performed by the subject (not by someone else upon the subject), but in such a way that the action is directed back toward the subject or the self. Understanding that the verb means “to place, to set, to arrange in a certain order or position,” we can see that the statement in 13:48 can quite validly be taken thus: “As many as arranged themselves unto (eis) eternal life believed,” or “As many as turned themselves toward eternal life believed,” or “As many as disposed themselves toward eternal life believed.”
Why should we accept this approach to the verb—i.e., as middle voice rather than passive? For two reasons. First, it agrees with the general overall teaching of Scripture, that turning toward God is a matter of free will and personal responsibility, not something unconditionally and irresistibly caused by God.
Second, this agrees with the context, where the Jews’ response to the gospel is being contrasted with that of the Gentiles. In Acts 13:13-41 Paul preached a powerful Sabbath sermon in the Jews’ synagogue at Antioch. Many of the Jews were so impressed that they asked for an encore the next Sabbath (vv. 42-43). Then on “the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (v. 44). This crowd obviously included many Gentiles, because “when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him” (v. 45). This provoked Paul and Barnabas to speak this judgment upon the Jews: “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (v. 46). This verse is important because it shows that the exclusion of the Jews from the ranks of the saved was their own choice, not the result of some predestining activity of God. The Jews specifically judged themselves unworthy of eternal life.
This is exactly the opposite of the Gentiles’ reaction, especially when Paul and Barnabas applied Isaiah 49:6 to themselves: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (v. 47). Verse 48 then describes the reaction of the Gentiles to this preaching. It was in fact just the opposite of the Jews’ reaction: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord.” Then follow the crucial words: and as many as set themselves toward eternal life believed. How did they set themselves toward eternal life? By hearing and heeding the word of God (see Rom. 10:17).
We cannot ignore the symmetrical contrast between the reaction of the Jews in v. 46 and the reaction of the Gentiles in v. 48. Whereas the Jews rejected the gospel and judged themselves to be unworthy of eternal life (v. 46), the Gentiles received it gladly and embraced the message of eternal life (v. 48). In both cases the decision was a matter of free choice. There is no support for Calvinism in v. 48.
Dr. Cottrell posted this nice piece of exegesis on his Facebook page on 12/23/11 and gave permission for its publication on the SEA site. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Cottrell is a professor of Biblical Theology at Cincinnati Christian University. He has earned degrees from University of Cincinnati (B.A. – philosophy), Westminster Theological Seminary (M.Div) and Princeton Theological Seminary (Ph.D).