The importance of context: a response to Dr. Ken Boa (part 2)

In this next section I will address what I view as an incorrect use of Scripture to support his assertion, and show how it has led to a conclusion that is arguably not defensible scripturally.  Dr. Boa writes:

Finally, God’s plan is not always the same as His desires. Although His plan controls what men will be, the product often is not what He desires. This is partly because God has chosen to allow human will to operate. For instance, God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4; see also 2 Peter 3:9). Yet He has not elected all men: “… The elect obtained it. The rest were hardened” Rom. 11:7).

Thus, God’s plan and desires are two different aspects of His will. He has revealed His desire (what men ought to do), but His plan for what specific men will do has for the most part been hidden. This is almost a mystery within a mystery, because there is no way we can conceive of how these two aspects of God’s will relate together in His mind.

Now, the concept of the two wills of God–His decretal will, or God’s plan He will carry out in creation, and His prescriptive will, what Dr. Boa calls “what men ought to do”–are not at all foreign to the reformed believer.  One of my first introductions to reformed theology was through a sermon of Matt Chandler’s when I was first in the process of joining the Village Church some years ago called “Are there two wills in God?”  John Piper has a similar teaching available, and of course there is much discussion of this subject in the extensive writings of the reformers, all available for free online.  The difference, however, is that where Dr. Boa sees a conflict, the reformers saw harmony, and this is arguably a key part of the issue of compatabilism.  That is a subject we shall address later, but I argue that Dr. Boa has created division within God that is not warranted.  A big reason for that is the way he is handling some commonly abused texts here.  1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 are cited here in support of the idea that God’s true desire is to save all of mankind, but I want to demonstrate here that this is not an appropriate exegesis of this text.

First, let’s look at the 1 Timothy passage in its context:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 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. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.–1 Timothy 2:1-7

Context is key in understanding what Paul is saying by “all men.”  He is writing to Timothy during a time when the church was under persecution by the authorities.  It would have been a great temptation to neglect praying for those authorities, or to wish God’s curses upon them.  Certainly even in the West today that temptation still remains.

Yet Paul is calling on Timothy to encourage his church to be praying for those in authority over them, because even people in authority will come to know and honor Christ as Lord.  Likewise, there is extensive discussion in Scripture of the debate over the salvation of Gentiles, those outside of the Jewish people descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The testimony of Scripture on this question is clear: there is no group of people that is excluded from the command to repentance or the effectual work of the Holy Spirit, and that is what Paul is saying here.  Titus chapter 2 contains similar language, as Paul refers to different groups of people (different age groups, different jobs and roles, different positions in life) to demonstrate that there are no man-made borders on God’s grace.  Paul isn’t saying “God really wants everyone to be saved, but He can’t or won’t actually save everyone.”  He is reminding Timothy that they are to regard their neighbors rightly, and that there is no border around to whom the Gospel is to be carried.

There is a deeper issue that needs addressing as well, in the impact this interpretation has upon the nature of Christ’s work on the cross, but I will come back to that after addressing the second passage.  Again I’m going to provide a larger context with the portion in question highlighted:

This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.

But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 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. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.–2 Peter 3:1-13

Dr. Boa, like many, reads the highlighted portion to mean that God doesn’t want any human being to die unsaved, yet for some reason He doesn’t save everyone.  This is significant to dealing with Dr. Boa’s argument here because it reveals his presupposition–his assumed truth that sits as a cornerstone of the argument.  That assumption is a big part of what drives him to believe that there is some kind of conflict within God, a mystery regarding how God can be truly sovereign over creation, and yet allow people to live and die as rebel sinners.  But looking at the whole passage, and indeed the book as a whole, and it becomes clear that Boa’s reading of this as “God wants to save all people everyone in the world” is not Peter’s intended meaning.

Firstly, Peter is writing to a specific audience: to a group of believers, a church, just as Paul was above.  His introduction to this book defines that intended audience and the understanding of who he is speaking to when he uses particular words.  Now take a look at the beginning of the passage quoted above: Peter discusses others, not within the intended audience of this letter, “scoffers” who say that belief in Jesus’ return is foolish because of how long it had been. (If only they knew how many years hence we would be reading his words!)

Peter advises that such words should not be heeded because God’s schedule is not man’s.  He will not return just to prove a first-century fool wrong, but He will return when the timing is perfect and when all God’s people have been called.  Look at the verse in question: “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.”  The Lord is on His own perfect schedule to fulfill His promise–what promise?  The promise to return for His bride.  And why is He waiting? He “is patient toward you…”  Who is “you?”  “You” must refer to the aforementioned audience, to the church.  For Dr. Boa’s interpretation to be correct, “you” would have to refer to all people throughout the world, but this would put the verse at odds with the earlier differentiation between the scoffers and the believers and create a very strange concept in the middle of an unrelated discussion.  

Therefore, following the language of the text, to whom does “any” and “all” refer to?  The same audience as “you”: to believers, to God’s chosen people.  To insert a concept of universal atonement here, either in the Arminian sense of “everyone who chooses to follow God” or the universalist sense of “everyone in the world is now saved through Jesus’ work” is to rob the language of its basic meaning, and to import in a concept that is simply not present in Peter’s words.

More importantly, this passage is not a discussion of soteriology, but of the coming of Christ, and a reminder that believers are to be patient as we wait for Him to come and bring perfect justice.  We are to live as those expecting the return of Jesus at any time, and that time will come exactly when God intends it to.

I contend for these interpretations because it is important for us to be lovers of truth, and to be ready to defend a truly full and robust interpretation of Scripture against those who believe that it would be more profitable for Christians to carve out the parts they don’t like and leave the parts they do.  It becomes very difficult to do that if I am suddenly left clinging to an interpretation of a verse that even an unbeliever can recognize is not correct by reading the context.  There is a human tradition driving that interpretation, one we must see and call for what it is: an injection of an eisegetical reading into the text.  Reading the text in that way makes lining up consistently with truth very difficult, and I believe it muddies the preaching of the Gospel.

In his systematic theology, Wayne Grudem suggests that reformed/monergistic believers look askance at the non-reformed/synergistic position because we believe that such a position is essentially a gateway to universalism/inclusivism.  While this is certainly true to a certain extent (I would argue that White’s axiom “The only consistent Arminian is an open theist” is applicable here), I don’t believe this is the primary objection of myself or others.  Rather, the primary objection, when looking at the state of preaching in many Western evangelical churches, is that it creates an “easy-believism,” “get your ticket punched and you’re good” idea of the Gospel that is foreign to the teachings of Scripture.  But because that method of preaching is so endemic to a large number of American churches, a push to return to a more scriptural approach causes a lot of grief on the part of those pastors.

Coming in part 3: A more excellent ministry


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