Calvinism’s Missing Contexts- Part 3

, posted by SEA

This blog post is written by pastor Christopher Chapman, a member of SEA.

Philippians 1:6

“And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”

Ephesians 1:4

“He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.”

Calvinist Challenge:

From these 2 verses it is clear as day that every individual who has been saved was predestined for eternal life from all eternity and will never fall away from the Christian faith. God will complete the work he started in each and every Christian. And he chose each individual that would be saved before the world began.

Biblical Response:

The Calvinist misinterprets verses like the ones above because he misunderstands who these passages were written to and about. He misunderstands that the verse in Philippians was written to a particular congregation and applies to that congregation as a whole. He also fails to realize that the verse in Ephesians was written about the Body of Christ in general.

In a previous post (“Ground Rules of Interpretation”) we learned that before we can apply scripture to our lives personally we need to understand the original context of the passage. But often when we face verses like Philippians 1:6 we jump to conclusions and apply them directly to the individual believer.

Linguistic Limitations – “You or Y’all?”

Why do we do this? Many times it is because the limitations of our language. Many languages around the world, including the one in which Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, have a plural form of the word, “you.” But in some languages like English we can only express “you” in the plural form by adding something to it. We can say things like, “You all” or “You guys.” And if we are from the American state of Texas, we are even permitted to say things like, “Y’all.”

The New Revised Standard Version translated Philippians 1:6 with the plural meaning of the original language in mind. Let’s look at the NRSV’s translation of this verse and see how it clarifies Paul’s meaning.

Philippians 1:6 (NRSV)

“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

“In you” has a completely different implication than “among you.” The first sounds like Paul is saying “in the individual believer.” The second makes it clear that Paul was talking about what was happening “in the midst of the Philippian church.” What this means is that Paul was not expressing confidence that every single member of the church in Philippi would make it to heaven, but that the Philippian church would continue to move forward in the will of God. God had started a work in them (i.e. among them), and he would faithfully continue to work in and through that church. But Paul had no illusions that each and every member of the Philippian church would continue to walk faithfully with Christ until the second coming.

I have been living in Asia as a missionary for more than a decade. I was ordained in a church named Praise Chapel Christian Fellowship, which is located in Dallas, Texas, USA. Though many churches have been faithful to love me and my family by supporting us and praying for us throughout the years, Praise Chapel Dallas has a special place in my heart. They have been partners with us from the beginning. In Philippians 1:3-5 Paul praises the Philippian church. He said that whenever they came to mind he gave thanks to God for them and that he always remembered them in his prayer time. He said this gratitude came from the fact that they had been his partners in the Gospel from the first day he came to Philippi. Then in verse 6 he goes on to tell them that he is confident that the God who started a good work in their midst would be faithful to continue working in them and through them. What Paul felt for the church in Philippi, I feel for the Praise Chapel Dallas. And his confidence that God would continue to use the Philippian church is the same confidence I have in God for my church back in Dallas.

I am only able to make it back to Dallas once a year, but it is always a wonderful week of fellowship. The church that sent me out to preach the Gospel in August of 2000 is still alive and kicking. They are not just surviving, they are thriving! Through the years many souls have come into the kingdom, new leaders have risen up and started new home Bible studies, new pioneer pastors have been sent out to start new churches in the surrounding areas, and even other missionaries have been sent abroad. God has remained faithful to Dallas Praise Chapel. And yet, every year I go visit, I learn the sad news that someone or another has left the church and gone back into their former sinful lifestyle. God is faithfully working in the Dallas Praise Chapel, but that doesn’t mean that every person who has come to Christ in that church has continued to walk with Christ. Paul was confident that God would continue to work in and through the church in Philippi, but he was not so naïve to assume that every individual would endure to the end and be saved. When facing passages like Philippians 1:6 we must keep the corporate context in mind.

Cultural Influence – “Individuality or Community?”

Another reason we jump the gun in applying verses with a corporate context to the individual believer is by letting our western world view, which naturally leans towards individualism, blind us. Western culture has a very individualistic outlook on life. In the West, the individual is primary and the group is secondary. In the West a group is just a collection of individuals, and the individuals are valued as individuals. In the East individuals are almost invisible; the group is supreme and the individual is either inside or outside the group. The individual is valued because of his connection to the group. Because many of us have a tendency to focus on the supremacy of the individual, we are often quick to apply anything that is spoken about the Body of Christ to the individual members of it. But we must remember that the Bible was written by, and to, people from the East.

Many of us read Ephesians 1:4 in this way, “He chose each and every Christian in him (i.e. Christ) before the foundation of the world.” But Paul was an Easterner, and so was his audience. That means what he was actually saying was, “He chose the Church in him before the foundation of the world.” Even the plural language doesn’t make this clear to us. When we read, “us,” we don’t think of the group each of us is a part of (i.e. the Church), but we think about the individuals that make up the Church. To those of us with a Western mind set “us” means all the individuals that make up the group. But to Paul and his audience, “us” means the group that we are each a part of.

So when we read Ephesians 1:4, it seems to us that God’s word is teaching that John, Joe and Cindy were personally chosen by God to be saved before the world began. Logically this means that Ted, Mike and Suzy were not chosen. So Paul seems to be teaching that certain individuals were predestined to be saved, and others were not. What Paul was actually teaching was that the Body of Christ had been predestined to be holy in God’s eyes. Anyone who is a member of God’s Church can rejoice in that glorious plan and the fulfillment of it.

Let’s ask a few questions to make it clear that Paul was thinking about the corporate Body of Christ, not particular individuals, when he said, “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” Firstly, when Paul wrote the letter, how did he know who would be listening when the letter was read aloud to the congregation? How did he know that only those individuals that had been eternally predestined for salvation were there that day and were rightfully included in the “us” of Ephesians 1:4? And, supposing he did know exactly who would be present that day, how did he know for sure that they had all been predestined by God? What if some of the members of the congregation were “false converts” that only deceived themselves and others into thinking they had saving faith? Of course the answer to these questions is that Paul did not know who was going to hear the letter, or read it for generations to come, and he didn’t need to know with certainty the spiritual condition of each listener/reader. He was speaking to the Body of Christ, not the particular individuals that were listening that day. When he said, “We were chosen,” he was saying, “We, the Body of Christ, the Church of God, were chosen.” Whoever reads the letter to the Ephesians, the truth remains the same; God chose the Church in Christ before the foundation of the world.

But isn’t Paul telling the Ephesians and all individual believers this in order to encourage them? Can’t we apply this verse to individuals also? Yes and Yes. But we need to apply it properly.

In the Old Testament God chose a holy people for himself. He promised to bring them into the land of Canaan, and he did. God fulfilled his purpose for his people. But this doesn’t mean that every individual Israelite was able to enjoy the nation’s inheritance. A whole generation died in the wilderness because they refused to trust in the Lord and submit to his commands. The nation received what was promised, but many members of that nation did not. God swore to Abraham that he would give his descendants the land of Canaan. But that promise did not ensure that each Israelite would obtain the promise. As long as they remained covenant keeping members of God’s people they would be blessed with the people as a whole. But those individuals who rebelled against the Lord were cut off from Israel and the promised inheritance. The individual Israelites could find comfort in their chosen status and the milk and honey waiting for them in Canaan, only as long as they remained legitimate members of the chosen people.

The Church was chosen even before the people of Israel. It was chosen before the foundation of the world. By his blood, Jesus made the Church holy and blameless before God. It was God’s eternal purpose to create a holy people in Jesus Christ, and that’s just what he did. Jesus is continuing to build his Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. He will one day return from heaven to receive his spotless Bride unto himself. God has assured us that this is the Church’s destiny, and nothing will stop it. But this does not mean that each member of the Church was chosen before the foundation of the world. Nor does it ensure that everyone who is a member of the Body of Christ will partake of the Promised Land of Eternal Life. We are now “holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col. 1:22). And we will remain so “if indeed we continue in the faith, stable, and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel” that we have received (Col. 1:23). We are now “holy brothers” that “share in the heavenly calling” (Heb. 3:1). And we will remain members of his family “if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope” (Heb. 3:6).

In Romans 11:11-24 Paul talks about this phenomenon. In that passage Paul describes God’s chosen people as an olive tree. He teaches us that the way to remain connected to the olive tree is by walking in faith. He explains that some, who used to be branches in the olive tree, were cut off because they fell into unbelief. The tree, that is, God’s chosen people, always remains holy and blameless before God, but the unbelieving branches no longer experience the Lord’s salvation. Paul makes it clear that if those who have been broken off repent, they can be once again members of God’s chosen people. And he warns the arrogant branches that they too can be broken off if they don’t continue to walk in faith. God’s corporate election of Christ’s Body remains constant, but which individuals are a part of that that chosen people depends on our connection to Christ through faith.

So when we come across a passage of scripture that seems on the surface to imply the false teachings of Calvinism we must ask if the context is talking about individuals or a group. If we do not take a moment and ask this question often we can falsely assume it is talking about individuals. This could be because of limitations in our language or limitations in our cultural view point. We must remember that we cannot properly apply it to our lives until we understand what the author meant to communicate to his original audience. We must keep in mind that corporate verses are those that are written to a group of people, apply to a group of people, and apply to individuals only as long as they remain part of the corporate group.

Conclusion

When we run into passages that look like they are confirming Reformed theology we must take time to get our bearings. Just as good theme parks provide sufficient maps to get you easily from one ride to another without much difficulty, God has provided sufficient context to his word to keep us from getting lost in error. Some verses seem to teach Calvinism because we fail to take into account the biblical context. When a verse speaks of people being chosen for something, we must ask, “Chosen for what?” When we read verses that are written to groups of people we must makes sure that we keep the passages in their corporate contexts. And we must be aware of the Jewish/Gentile controversy that was responsible for much of what we read n the New Testament if we hope to avoid coming to false conclusions about so many scriptures. When you feel lost look for the red dot that says, “You Are Here.”

For the complete post with comments, go to: http://christopherchapmanblog.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/calvinisms-missing-contexts-part-3/