[StriderMTB’s lengthy article, “The Folly of Doing Theology in an Echo Chamber: A Thorough Examination of Piper’s ‘Two-Wills’ View,” has been divided into 30 parts and edited for serial publication on this website. Here is a link to the original post. After the entire series is published, it will be made available as a single article on this site. Critique 20 is included in this post.]
Critique 20: WHY DID GOD GIVE ISRAEL A “SPIRIT OF STUPOR, EYES THAT SHOULD NOT SEE AND EARS THAT SHOULD NOT HEAR” IF ISAIAH 42:18 SAYS GOD COMMANDS PEOPLE TO SEE AND HEAR?
Let’s return again to Piper’s earlier contention that Romans 11:7 supports his particular Two-Wills view. What does Paul mean when he distinguishes between “Israel not finding what it was looking for… [and being] hardened” and “the elect [who] did find it”? Does it mean God never truly desired or intended certain Jews to obtain salvation? Does it mean God pre-programed Israel’s sins? Does it mean God was behind the scenes; actively engineering a plot to ensure the nation of Israel disobeyed him and failed in her call to be a light to the nations? If not why does Paul quote OT passages in Romans 11:8 that speak of God giving people a “spirit of stupor, eyes that should not see and ears that should not hear”? Moreover to quote the main thrust of Piper’s contention in the form of a question, why does God do this “even though it is the command of God that his people see and hear and respond in faith (Isaiah 42:18)?” Is it, as Piper assumes, evidence that God wills one thing and then “acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will.”
We have been over this material already, but because Piper continues to repeat the same charges in various, nuanced forms it is necessary to deal with them thoroughly. Five points are in order.
Firstly, the mere fact that Paul is quoting the OT in this way tells us Paul understood Israel to be under God’s judgment just like she was at earlier times when she spurned God’s patience and rejected God’s outstretched arms (Is. 65:2). Once again God is judicially blinding Israel as a consequence for her own self-chosen blindness and intransigent un-teachableness. However God can still call out for repentance and for ears to hear in Isaiah just like Jesus will later do in the NT. Why can he do this? Because he knows not all have succumbed to the spirit of implacable unbelief that defines their age. Some will respond— in fact many did (Mark 1:5). But generally speaking the time for extended patience and mercy on the nation has ended. The time for judgment has come. A similar passage in Isaiah almost perfectly parallels the dire, spiritual condition of Israel in Paul’s day. In fact Jesus even quotes from it in Mark 6:7-8 to describe the general heart condition of the nation that required God’s judicial blinding as a response (not a cause):
“For the Lord has poured out on you
an overwhelming urge to sleep; [i.e. spirit of stupor]
He has shut your eyes — the prophets,
and covered your heads — the seers…
Because these people approach Me with their mouths
to honor Me with lip- service —
yet their hearts are far from Me,
and their worship consists of man- made rules
learned by rote —
therefore I will again confound these people…
and the understanding of the perceptive will be hidden” (Isaiah 29:10-14).
Secondly, self-righteousness and confidence in outward law keeping has always been the root cause of Israel’s outward religiosity at the cost of inward confession. According to Paul the “attempt to establish their own righteousness” is the principle reason Israel “disregarded God’s righteousness” (Rom 10:3), failed to obtain “the righteousness that comes by faith” (Rom. 10:6) and was judicially judged. We should never call into question the sincerity of God’s desire to mercifully seek and save the lost, the blind and the sick. But when blind sinners consider themselves already well, already holy, already righteous and already seeing, there is little they can receive from God except discipline. The historical record on Israel is generally uniform on this point as it spans the two testament ages:
“I spread out my hand all day to a rebellious people…
These people continually provoke Me
to My face…They say, Keep to yourself,
don’t come near me, for I am too holy for you!…
I will not keep silent, but I will repay…” (Isaiah 65:3-6)
It is astonishing that people could ever think they were “too holy” for God, but Jesus charges Israel with the same self-righteous attitude, saying, “I came into this world for judgment, in order that those who do not see will see and those who do see will become blind. Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard these things and asked Him, ‘We aren’t blind too, are we?’ If you were blind, Jesus told them, you wouldn’t have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’ — your sin remains.” (John 9:39-41).
Jesus makes it clear he came to seek and save the lost, bind up the broken hearted, set the oppressed free and restore sight to the blind. But like slaves refusing freedom because they proudly think they are masters, and terminally ill patients refusing treatment because they confidently think they are in perfect health, Jesus has no recourse except to confirm such people in their own stubbornness and seek out others more responsive, teachable and humble.
Thirdly, concerning Paul’s distinguishing of Israel and the elect, it is to our advantage to keep in mind that often (but not always) in Paul’s perspective “Israel” = God’s chosen people by Hebraic ancestry and outward law keeping and the “Elect” = God’s chosen people by faith and internal confession. Paul is not alone in his assessment of two distinct groups. It shows up repeatedly in the words of Christ. The former group is awash in self-righteousness and pride and can receive nothing from the Lord. The other group is marked by humility and will therefore be saved by grace as promised: “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble” (Jm 4:6; Mt. 23:12; Pr. 3:34). We see these two categories best pitted against each other in Christ’s parable of the Pharisee who went to the temple to testify of his outward works of the Law and the sinful publican who went to the temple to confess his inward poverty and need of divine mercy. We will recall only one went home justified (Lk. 18:9-14).
Fourthly, to a large extent the nation of Israel forfeited divine mercy that came by way of her Messiah, and consequently became judiciously blinded and hardened because she belonged to the aforementioned former group. But as stated before, not all did. Not all had unbelieving hearts, calloused over by years of outward piety at the cost of inward confession and faith. Some did heed the words of God in the past, recognized the voice of their God in the voice of Jesus, and thus were drawn to Christ as naturally as sheep being drawn to the voice of their true shepherd. As Jesus declares, “Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to Me… But you don’t believe because you are not My sheep. My sheep hear My voice, I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn 6:45; 10:26-27). Those who were already in a right relationship with the Father at the inauguration of Christ were known to Christ and followed Christ because they recognized that the Son and the Father spoke in one voice. Such persons are saved by grace and called the “elect,” and exist in contrast to the general term “Israel” in Romans 11:7. That is why Paul can say “Israel did not obtain” what it was searching for (i.e., righteousness) but the “elect did obtain it.”
Fifthly, as already noted, Piper is far too cursory and prone to bias in his treatment of these verses and therefore gives off the mistaken impression these passages describe some eternal determination in the Godhead that Israel was never meant to obey, never meant to believe and never meant to obtain righteousness through faith— and in order to fulfill that prior determination God unilaterally and unconditionally decreed her hardness of heart. But that turns out not to be the case at all as we have explored above. God’s judicial acts of divine blinding (i.e. “a spirit of stupor”) are just that— judicial! They are in response to self-chosen, stiff-necked obstinacy and self-righteousness— not the cause of it. Since Piper believes all things have been unconditionally decreed before the world began, his view inescapably collapses into causal determinism and renders any sense of self-determination and accountability an illusion.
One final note bears mentioning again. In his treatment of Israel’s judicial blinding and hardening, Piper’s writing style appears to be an attempt to drive his readers to one of two conclusions:
- 1) There exists a real contrariety between God’s perfect, moral will that people believe, and God’s decretive will that people never believe.
- 2) There exists a seeming contrariety shrouded in inexplicable mystery between God’s perfect, moral will that people believe, and God’s unconditional, decretive will that people never believe.
Piper of course believes the second conclusion, and he thinks he has good reasons. After all if God calls people to repentance on the one hand, but God is then seen to unconditionally blind those same persons to the truth on the other hand, Piper wonders what other possible explanation could there be except to declare God intentionally “acts in a way to restrict the fulfillment of that will.”
However neither conclusion is the case. We don’t need to embrace a genuine contradiction or punt to mystery to escape a seeming contradiction. God can both call out for repentance to some and judicially blind others because there are two principle groups of people God has in view:
- Group 1: Those who missed the day of their visitation due to a prior, obstinate unwillingness to “submit themselves to God’s righteousness” (Rom 10:3) and will consequently be judicially confirmed in their obstinacy.
- Group 2: Those who have not yet succumbed to the spirit of their age and still have “ears to hear.”
Recognizing that both groups are in play in the N.T. can help us see why Jesus can declare on the one hand that the consequence of disbelief is further disbelief, further lack of understanding and further slumbering, and then on the other hand emphatically call out for belief and understanding. Jesus was always searching out hearts still willing to hear and listen. Such people are always in view in the common phrase “he who has ears to hear let him hear.” As we read in Mark 7:14-16, “Summoning the crowd again, He told them, Listen to Me, all of you, and understand…If anyone [still] has ears to hear, he should listen!”
Moreover Jesus told his disciples that those who persecuted him will likewise persecute them because they “don’t know the One who sent Me” (John 15:21). That is to say they never knew God, never knew his Father— ever! Yet they arrogantly thought they did. Time and again Jesus warns that if we arrogantly say we see, but walk as if we are blind, our sin, which is the ultimate cause of our blindness, remains. However it is promised that if we humbly admit and confess our blindness and “turn to the Lord the veil is removed” as we see noted in 2 Cor. 3:16. The veil is not removed so that we can turn to Christ; it is removed when we turn to Christ. God’s judicial act of judgment against the nation of Israel was to deliver the nation up to its own blindness due to their rejection of the only One who could take away the veil. But we certainly shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking this judicial blinding is an irrevocable act, as Paul himself rhetorically asks, “If they repent will God not graft them in again?” (Rom. 11:23)
There is an implicit warning in all of this. If we persist in rebellion and hard heartedness there comes a point where we are judiciously given over to our rebellion wherein God has no recourse except to withdraw his light and mercy. We find this theme throughout scripture and it ought to serve as a somber warning to us all. God is not to be mocked. What we sow we will reap and if we persist in sin and un-repentance God will give us up to experience the full measure of our self-chosen sin. We become the salt that loses its flavor and is good for nothing except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. We become the branches that didn’t bear fruit, whither away and are subsequently cut off and thrown into the fire.
In C.S. Lewis’s fictional work, The Great Divorce, one of the characters offers an analogy that is helpful. “If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our eyes forever. They must be swept up.”