9 – The Transformed Heart

Another concept in the Scripture that needs to be considered is the foreknowledge of God. An examination of a passage in Romans will shed light on the differing ways the Calvinist and Arminian understand how God chooses some for salvation.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that He might be the first born among many brothers. And those He predestined, He also called; those He called, He also justified; those He justified, He also glorified (Rom. 8:28-29).

Regarding this foreknowledge of God, Everett F Harrison says,

[The] calling [of God] is…explained in terms of foreknowledge and predestination (v.29). [Foreknowledge] does not indicate the advance awareness or knowledge of someone; it refers to God’s choice, his electing decision. This is rendered crystal clear in 1st Peter 1:20….Nor is it cold and formal. It is filled with the warmth of love, as in the Hebrew word ‘to know’ (Gen. 18:19; Amos 3:2). Though foreknowledge is not mentioned in Deuteronomy 7:6-8, that passage illumines the concept…Observe also that we are called according to His purpose, not according to foreknowl- edge…”19

Or, as Alan F. Johnson says,

“As difficult as it may seem, foreknowledge always depends on God’s election or choice and never on our election of God (2 Thes. 2:13- 14)…Predestination is almost the equivalent of foreknowledge…but emphasizes the goal or end in view while foreknowledge focuses on the persons involved.”20

The Calvinist, of course, has an easier time with such a passage than does the Arminian. But to see an Arminian perspective on this issue, John Wesley’s response is worth noting. He says, in part:

The more frequently and carefully I have considered it, the more I have been inclined to think that the apostle is not here (as many may have supposed) describing a chain of causes and effects (this does not seem to have entered into his heart), but simply showing the method in which God works; the order in which the several branches of salvation constantly follow each other…God foreknew those in every nation who would believe, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things…all eternity…being present to Him at once…

But observe: We must not think that they are because He knows them. No. He knows them because they are. Just as I…now know the sun shines, yet the sun does not shine because I know it, but I know it because it shines…

What is it, then, that we learn from this account? It is this, and no more: (1) God knows all believers, (2) wills that they should be saved from sin, (3) to that end, justifies them, (4) sanctifies them, and (5) takes them to glory.21

Johnson seems almost apologetic about the idea that God’s foreknowledge equals His choosing some (and by necessity, not choosing others). Wesley wants to make it refer simply to God’s omnipotent foresight. These approaches to the biblical passages are honest attempts at grappling with a very difficult problem: namely, how can election of the believer to heaven not simultaneously imply the “election” of the unbeliever to hell?

First, we must recognize that the Arminian’s view of this passage is inadequate. “Foreknowledge” cannot mean simply that “God knew beforehand”—that He knew events ahead of time. It is not a mere intellectual comprehension of facts, as Johnson points out. The term here is emphasizing God’s love for us, and not merely His intellectual awareness of us.

On the other hand, it does not have to be a dry and clinical description of a sequence of events, either. This was not Paul’s intended purpose when he wrote it. The language of Romans 8:28-29 needs to be understood as an idiom—a figure of speech in the original language.

F. F. Bruce points out that the form of this passage is significant. It speaks of an ongoing process where its final outcome is yet to come, yet it is spoken of as an event that already occurred in the past. “Perhaps he is imitating the Hebrew use of the ‘prophetic past,’ by which a predicted event is marked out as so certain of fulfillment that it is described as though it had already taken place.”22

When they spoke of some events that were considered to happen with absolute certainty, they would speak of them as though they had already occurred. The implication is that Paul here is speaking of something that is absolutely certain to happen. He is saying that for those He foreknew—those on whom He sovereignly set His loving choice—He will finish what He started.

As William Barclay says, “This is a passage which has been very seriously misused…Paul never meant it to be the expression of theology or philosophy. He meant it to be the almost lyrical expression of Christian experience. If we…apply the standards of cold logic to it, it must mean that God chose some and did not choose others. But that is not what it means.”23 We must always try to get a feel for a writer’s primary intent in a passage. And we need to avoid reading too much into a text simply because it works to our advantage when we do so.24 This passage in Romans, if it can be understood to be idiomatic—if it is imitating the Hebrew “prophetic past”—only has to be saying that since God already knew you and chose to love you so much that He called you and made you righteous in Christ by salvation, then you can know He will finish what He started right up until He receives you into glory.

I believe Barclay has the essence of Paul’s intent in mind regarding this passage. And in this sense then, Barclay’s comments could equally apply to the other passages of Scripture similar to Romans 8:28-29, such as Ephesians 1:3-14. They are the natural heart cry of a believer rejoicing in the fact that God loved him, in the idiomatic, “from forever”—in reality, from long before the believer ever knew God.

In this regard, Barclay’s perspective is a worthwhile one and needs some careful consideration here. Paul’s primary intent in passages such as Romans 8:28-29 and Ephesians 1:3-14 is to speak assurance to the believer. He is saying to believers, “if you are in Christ, then know you are in Him because He set His love on you. And if He did that, then you can also rejoice, because God’s nature is such that what He started, He will finish.” And that is all Paul is intending to say in these passages. They were never meant to be used against Paul in a theological court of law.

But even if the reader would insist on a strict rendering of the text, then “before the foundation of the world” does not have to mean: before the foundation of the world apart from it being as a result of the intercession of the saints. It can mean: before the foundation of the world because He saw how His saints would respond to Him through time and intercede for the salvation of others.

Now in regard to Calvinism’s fourth point, irresistible grace, the Calvinist’s understanding is that because of total depravity, none would come except that God sovereignly transforms some so that they want to come; therefore, the only reason any come is because they are changed, and their nature is such that it does not resist the grace of God. But the Calvinist does not see this coming as an act of free will.

He may technically have the external option to choose or reject Christ, but basically he does not. Christ will not let him reject Him. All that the Father has given to Christ will come to Christ. No one will snatch them out of Christ’s hands (John 6:37, 39). In other words, the Christian does not have free will.25

This is a statement typical of the Calvinist position on the subject. And I believe the Calvinist is partly correct. The non-Christian does not have a free will. We often hear and use the term “free will.” Usually when we use it, we are using it to refer to mankind’s moral will—the ability to choose to do right or wrong. But when discussing free will, we need to shift the focus from thinking in terms of “morally right” or “morally wrong” decisions to thinking in terms of “God-centered” decisions versus “self-centered” decisions.

The essence of the sin nature is that it is self-serving and self-gratifying. The lost man may indeed make morally right decisions that can be driven by nothing more than self-serving motives. Although they may result in right decisions, it is ultimately the motives we are concerned with when we are discussing free will. When I use the term here, I am referring not to man’s choosing to do right instead of wrong, but choosing to do what pleases God if it should conflict with what will please the man himself in that instance.

And the Arminian seems to miss this point. God’s grace is not resistible by the lost man because a lost man does not have free will. The lost man is in bondage to his nature, and his nature is such that he would not come to Christ except by a sovereign act of intervention. The lost man’s nature is sinful and hostile to God (Rom. 8:5-6). The hardening of sin (Gal. 6:7-8) and demonic influence (2 Cor. 4:4) have capitalized on his nature and rendered him unable to respond to that part of eternity that God has placed within him (Eccl. 3:11). God intervenes specifically in that person’s life to show the reality of God, of heaven and hell, and of sin and the penalty of death, intervening to bring the man to a place of responding favorably to God’s call to salvation, though he maybe responds only out of a fear of hell or a need for spiritual and emotional wholeness. And so the lost man comes because he wants to while still in his lost state (John 1:12).

But now, at the point of conversion, the heart is transformed by a sovereign act of God. And now, after conversion—and this is where Palmer and so many other Calvinists miss it—the saved man can now resist God’s grace because after salvation, man does have free will—the ability to truly choose between God-centered and self-centered decisions. As the Westminster Catechism says:

When God converts a sinner and translates him into the state of grace, He frees him from his natural bondage under sin; and, by His grace alone, enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good; yet so, as that by reason of his remaining corruption, he does not perfectly, nor only, will that which is good, but does also will that which is evil.26

The new nature gives that person true life with the ability to actively embrace and take advantage of a new and higher motivation—a motivation to truly live in a way that pleases God, simply because it is what God wants. But the reality that we as believers struggle with is that when God imparts the new nature, He does not eradicate the old one (Rom. 7). He allows us, with our “real life” to exercise “real choice”—true free will—by allowing us to choose freely to do those things that are pleasing to Him, by the power of His Spirit (Phil. 2:13) through faith (Rom. 6:11-14). And yet in doing so, He takes a tremendous risk on us. He recognizes that we will sometimes fail, and yield from time to time to the pull of the old nature still resident within us. We wrestle with the desire of the old nature to serve self and the desire of the new nature to serve God (Rom. 7:7-23). And yet He is willing to allow us to struggle—and, sometimes, to fail—for the pleasure of watching us grow to choose more completely and fully in His direction as we mature in the Christian life.

Regarding foreknowledge and predestination, it seems neither the Calvinist nor Arminian positions appreciate this significant difference between the saved man and the lost man. For the Arminian, it seems he does not recognize the inability of the lost to respond to God apart from God sovereignly choosing to intervene in the lost man’s heart and bringing him effectually to the place where he wants this peace with God.

But Calvinism is equally faulty. It does not recognize the free will—the “real life” now in the Christian which comes as a result of conversion. It cannot, therefore, comprehend the potential this free will has for changing the eternal destiny of the lost when it is surrendered daily to the leading of the spirit and becomes God-centered instead of self-serving.

The Calvinist believes that if someone prays for the lost, it is because God decreed they would pray. If they wrestle in prayer, even as someone like David Brainerd or Charles Finney or Suzannah Wesley did, it is because God in His sovereignty decreed the wrestling. If they did not pray, God would still save the predetermined elect, anyway. They are, after all, elect. If the believer did not pray or evangelize, Calvinism says it would not make a difference regarding who is saved in the end. It would only make a difference as to how the blessings are handed out for obedience to those who prayed. If the believer did not pray, he would not be blessed by seeing the elect man saved. Supposedly, the elect will still end up being saved in the end. They are, after all, elect.

Yet while the lost man can do nothing but serve self by nature, the saved man can now serve God by choice, but can now also disobey by true choice, choosing to serve self still, and quenching the Spirit (1 Thes. 5:19; Eph. 4:30). And this disobedience will have real negative consequences both in time and in eternity.

An air brake on a truck makes a good illustration. When most people think of brakes on a vehicle, they think of brakes like they have in their cars. When you step on the pedal, the brakes stop the car. But truck brakes are different. Air brakes on tractor trailers are designed, “by nature,” so to speak, so that they are always applying the brakes unless they are attached to the pressurized air supplied from the truck’s running engine. The air pressure makes them release. Without the air supplied by the truck, they can only hinder the truck’s movement. The air supplied to them is what makes them “quit stopping” the truck, thereby allowing motion.

In the same way, the non-Christian is predisposed to serving self. Indeed, he can, in the final analysis, do nothing in and of himself to please God, as his motives are ultimately self-serving. But once empowered by the Spirit of God, he has a choice. He can resist God still—but now by active choice—and follow the desires of the old sin nature, quenching the Spirit; or he can yield to the leading of the Spirit, stop resisting God and instead deny the desires of the old nature by a new and higher motivation, through faith. When he does this, the Spirit of God “works in [him] to will and to act according to His good purpose” (Phil. 2:13). By this act of dying daily to self, recognizing he can do nothing of himself, the man seeks to stop doing, and to allow God to do through him what God wants to do. And in this context, what God wants to do is to work through us to effectually intercede on behalf of the lost.

Let me restate that none of the passages of scripture typically used as proofs for election specifically say “predestined from the foundation of the world apart from the interaction of the saints with God throughout the course of history.”

Some Calvinists would go so far as to make a direct tie of God’s omniscience with God’s sovereignty. The reason is that God knew before He made the world what all the different outcomes of history would be. He knew how the future would be different if He started it differently. So, in the end, He chose to bring into existence the world we are in, knowing it would come out the way it did. So He ultimately decreed that it would be as it now is, according to the Calvinist. This is a very unfortunate position. In this regard, Wesley is right. “Just as I…now know the sun shines, yet the sun does not shine because I know it, but I know it because it shines…”27

God’s knowing beforehand that I would pray does not mean that He caused me to pray. He only knew that I would. The point is that if we obey God and respond to Him now and pray when the Spirit of God prompts us, then “eternity past” will look different when we get to “eternity future” than it would have looked if we disobey God now and fail to respond to His promptings to pray for the lost.

By seeking to be God-centered by yielding to the Spirit instead of self- centered by yielding to the flesh, our transformed hearts and lives can be the pathway for God to transform others. And so our constant obedience in all things is crucial. We have no idea what eternal consequences hang in the balance!

>>> Next: Chapter 10