A. W. Tozer on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963)

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963)

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963) was one of the finest Christian thinkers and preachers of the relatively recent past. I have only just become familiar with him quite recently, but have been delighted to share in some of the insights of his writings.

One such insight that I have particularly appreciated is that found below on the topic of divine sovereignty and human freedom.

As an Arminian, I have never understood the Calvinist insistence that divine sovereignty and control implies that human beings cannot be granted (libertarian) free will. I have always thought it rather obvious that a God who may do whatever he pleases with the powers of the heavens and the earth can make man such that he does possess free will.

I have never encountered a quotation such as Tozer’s that so perfectly encapsulates and summarises my view on this topic at current.

Thus, without further ado, here it is; the quotation from A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Authentic Media, 2008), pp.144-145:

[p.144] “Another real problem created by the doctrine of divine sovereignty has to do with the will of man. If God rules His universe by His sovereign decrees, how is it possible for man to exercise free choice? And if he cannot exercise freedom of choice, how can he be held responsible for his conduct? Is he not a mere puppet whose actions are determined by a behind-the-scenes God who pulls the strings as it pleases Him?

“The attempt to answer these questions has divided the Christian church neatly into two camps which have borne the names of two distinguished theologians, Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin. Most Christians are content to get into one camp or the other and deny either sovereignty to God or free will to man. It appears possible, however, to reconcile these two positions without doing violence to either, although the effort that follows may prove deficient to partisans of one camp or the other.

“Here is my view: God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will [p.145] of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.”

Notice that Tozer first acknowledges the real difficulty in discussing divine sovereignty and human freedom. He therefore does not so presume to state his opinion lightly. Nor is he so proud or dogmatic so as to suppose that his word shall be the final and all-encompassing say on the matter.

Yet, to me, what he then goes on to say is simply masterful. He asserts that it is possible — nay, that it is, indeed, the case — that God has sovereignly decreed that mankind should have free will. Whatever choice man then makes in this capacity God has given him, man fulfills that original decree, not in that God causally determined and thus necessitated any one particular choice any given man should make, but that in so making the choice, that man has thereby exercised that rational capacity of free agency that God, by his sovereign free will, has decided that mankind should have.

The one quibble I would have with Tozer is that it seems implicit in his quotation that he believes that this is a middle ground between two extremes of Arminianism and Calvinism, one which denies divine sovereignty and the other that denies genuine human free will, respectively.

Yet if one were to compare what Tozer says to what writers such as Jacobus Arminius and John Wesley say, then it would actually become apparent that how Tozer has explained his position falls squarely within the Arminian camp. For on Arminianism, the freedom of our will just is a sovereign gift of divine grace in creation and salvation — in creation, as subsisting in the nature of man in original righteousness (that which was lost in the Fall); and in salvation, as God draws us who are totally depraved and thus unable of ourselves to come to him by His Spirit, and softens our hearts through Prevenient Grace in order to enable us sinners freely to come to Himself.

So rather than being a middle way through Arminianism and Calvinism, I believe Tozer’s point of view is an example of genuinely classical Arminianism. Perhaps what Tozer thought was Arminianism was actually Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. For that, we can forgive him. For it is a common misconception among those who are not sufficiently acquainted with the original writings or Arminius, Wesley or the Remonstrants that Arminiainsm is Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian.

Nevertheless, classical Arminianism is genuinely a theology of grace — grace from beginning to end — with a sovereign God who loves his creatures, and gives each one a libertarian free will to make genuine, moral choices, and we fulfill his sovereign decree for us to have a free will whenever we exercise that moral capacity that God has given us by his grace.


Are Catholics in the Kingdom?

I had a conversation with my minister in at my local Anglican Church last night about the Christian status of Roman Catholics. Are Catholics in the Kingdom?

That is, could Roman Catholics be saved or born-again, despite the teaching of that Church about relics, icons, the Mass, tradition & the Bible, Mary & the saints, the Papacy, indulgences, Purgatory, justification, faith & good works and so on? The same question could be asked of Eastern Orthodox or the Coptic Orthodox in a slightly alternative form. Still, the essential concern is the same.

I think this issue can be particularly emotional and volatile. I myself have had friends leave Evangelical Christianity to join a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox church. So I am often subject to the waves of the passions when thinking about the issue.

But in moments of honest reflection, I think there are a few fair things one could say from an Evangelical perspective that may allow one to give a qualified answer in the Affirmative in distinct, individual cases. What follows are a few thoughts in that regard.

1. God is not the God of any particular church denomination or tradition, but He is the God of Jesus Christ. Now this assertion, ironically, is almost certainly inconsistent with Roman Catholic belief. For Roman Catholicism teaches that the Roman Catholic Church alone is the true church of the Lord Jesus Christ, established by Him, and governed by the successor of St. Peter, the Pope of Rome, who is the Vicar of Christ, so-claimed (currently Pope Francis, b.1936, Pope from March 2013). However, I, as an Evangelical, would reject that. God is never called the God of Rome. Yet neither is God called the God of the Anglicans, nor the God of the Baptists, nor the God of the Pentecostals and so on. God is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Whoever belongs to Christ belongs to Him, and whoever belongs to Christ belongs to Him by faith alone in Him (Rom. 8:9). But in that case, one could imagine a person going frequently into a building called a ‘Catholic Church’ and who, in the midst of the false rituals of that place, nevertheless has a simple faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. A person could be a member of the truly universal and elect Church of Jesus Christ — which knows no denomination or other such human dividing walls (e.g. Eph. 2:14) — and be a person who is born-again and saved despite the failings and weaknesses of the church that they go to on a Sunday.

2. God is faithful to us in our ignorance, our failings and mistakes. Say there is a person sitting in a Catholic Church who calls themselves Catholic but who also has a simple, personal faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour, and who seeks to follow him. This person may believe and practice all kinds of falsehood. That would be sin, and people involved in that practice most certainly need to be sanctified of that sin (Rev. 22:15). But as I honestly reflect on this, I realise that in my religious life there may be all kinds of false ritual and idolatries still present in my heart. For example, pornography remains a massive problem in my life. I’ve gotten better with it over the years. But I still struggle with it. Is pornography any less sinful than asking a deceased saint’s help? God is patient with all who trust in him and is working slowly toward their sanctification. God may take many years to show someone something wrong in their life and their need to submit to Him in that area. God took forty years with Israel in the wilderness so they would learn their own heart (Deu. 8:2). Is the worship of the Mass any less sinful than pride? Is the doctrine of auricular confession any less harmful than the love of money? Is trusting in Mary or some other wrongly and exceedingly exalted saint to help with something any less sinful than trusting in oneself to do that very same thing? We all stumble in many ways. But God is patient with us all. Why, then, are we so quick to point the finger at others? “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Pet. 3:9.)

3. We are not saved by believing true doctrines, but by faith. If we truly believe justification is by faith, then surely we are not saved by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith, but by the faith itself.  I do not believe that we are saved by believing a doctrine per se, but by trusting in a divine-human Person — Jesus Christ. Obviously, it is not okay in God’s sight to deny biblical doctrines (1 Tim. 4:16). I think false teaching and heresy is destructive, and that it can indeed lead people away from the truth and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Believing the wrong thing and stubbornly going on believing it under correction is obviously not okay. But I think there can be a difference between being ignorant, on the one hand, and being truly defiant on the other hand. I believe that many Roman Catholics and others may be truly ignorant of the glorious freedom and assurance of the biblical teaching about divine justification by faith alone through grace and without good works, and yet their church leaders guide them wrongly away from this doctrine. This probably leads many if not most Roman Catholics to hold to a false gospel, which is really no gospel at all (Gal. 1:6-10). But that doesn’t mean there cannot be some Roman Catholic who is simply misguided but who is nevertheless born-again in faith. A person might believe the wrong thing but still have a living faith in Jesus that shows itself in love and good works. Many early Christians did not even have the privilege of possessing a full Bible. Who knows how many misconceptions about God they must have had? Even today with full Bibles it is often hard to understand, or it can be misapplied. But our God is a loving Father who is patient with us and who disciplines us over time that we might be his children, built up and mature, like strong men, and not as infants (Eph. 4:14; Heb. 12:7-10).

4. Of all the false beliefs and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, we Protestant Evangelicals tend to tolerate doctrines among those we consider to be brothers our circles which are just as bad if not worse than Roman Catholic doctrines. Take the worship of the Mass or the veneration of icons and relics. Are not such practices heinous? I sincerely believe that they are offensive to God. Now consider what God said to Eliphaz the Temanite concerning what he and his two friends Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite were saying to God’s righteous servant Job about the nature of God and the explanation for Job’s suffering earlier in the dialogue of the Book of Job:

“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about Me…” (Job 42:7)

Now consider this: God immediately provided atonement and forgiveness for these three men (42:8-9). What I mean is this. There are people in Protestant churches today who actually hold doctrines that are probably just as heinous in God’s sight as certain distinctive Catholic doctrines. For example, classical Calvinists actually believe (contra 1 Tim. 2:4 and other clear texts) not that God is willing that all should be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, but rather that God has simply and unconditionally predestined where every human being will ultimately end up for eternity before they are born — and that based on nothing good or bad they have done. That’s right! They actually interpret the biblical doctrine of Predestination in such a way that precludes God’s saving love and desire for every human being. Or take early American Protestantism for example. Segregationist churches split Christian believers into separate black and white skinned racial congregations that either could or would not mingle. Or take Martin Luther. Luther was a rabid anti-Semite at the end of his life (Von den Juden und ihren Lügen). Racism has been rampant among churches and leaders within Christianity — not that such attitudes come from the teaching and example of Jesus Christ. My point is, is that not all a blasphemy? Is it not all a mockery of the love of God to believe so? What I’m saying is that there are all kinds of beliefs and practices that we have or do that are not okay, but God our Father is unimaginably forbearing and long-suffering toward us, his people, who so often stuff up. Hence, I could imagine an individual Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or Calvinist or perhaps even maybe — just maybe — even a Unitarian (someone who denies the Trinity) who yet has a simple faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour, who therefore belongs to Christ, yet who nevertheless perseveres in absurd doctrines that are harmful to their sanctification and others’. Hopefully, God would bring them out of their deception soon. But can one not be mistaken and yet belong to Christ?

5. If there is a Roman Catholic who is born-again, it is not by virtue of their Roman Catholicism that they are so. The Roman Catholic Church surely has a high view of itself: that it is the Mother of all churches, the Bride of Christ, who alone has supreme authority to interpret scripture, forgive sins, exercise teaching and disciplinary authority and to determine the meaning and implications of church tradition, and to minister through her priesthood the saving sacraments, and so on. As I hope is clear by this point, I think the lot of this to be a foolish myth, and surely the vast majority of people who gather in that church are nominal Catholics who are not born-again, and those who truly, truly trust in their own good works to save them before the Throne of Judgement on the Last Day. But of the 99% of Roman Catholics in the world who may be lost, is it not possible that perhaps 1% of the people who meet in a Catholic Church and do Catholic things may indeed have a mustard seed of true faith and dependence on Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins and the salvation of their souls, even in the midst of the false hustle and bustle of the Mass, the relics, the icons, the bishops, the Papacy and the priests?

Well, I think so. And I think the way one thinks about this will profoundly impact the way one approaches one’s Roman Catholic friends. Here’s few suggestions:

First, we mustn’t judge by mere appearances (Jn. 7:24). We can’t simply paint everyone with a broad brush because they give themselves the title “Catholic” or even “Anglican” or “Christian.”  Anyone can claim a title. It’s the Spirit that counts: Is the person born-again? That’s the question. Do they have a living faith in Jesus Chris? Do they ultimately depend only and ever upon Him? What we should be interested in is where that particular individual’s heart is at with God and Jesus Christ, not what title they have or what building they go to.

Second, we need to be conscious of our own weaknesses (Matt. 7:1-2; Rom. 2:1-4, 21-22). Sure, your Roman Catholic friend might have a lot of problems, and in the course of their Christian life it may turn out that they need to leave that Church at the prompting of the Spirit who is in them. But in the meantime, why not be conscious of your own pride, your own anger, your own lust, your own possible false beliefs and traditions and have some charity towards another person who, for all intents and purposes, is seeking to know and serve God rightly?

Third, we need to be strong in our convictions, and tentative in our fellowship (2 Cor. 6:14). I have a mate who is a Roman Catholic but who to me seems to exhibit a genuine faith in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour. Whenever I meet up for him for coffee and we start to talk about Christianity and the Bible, we seem to get along quite well on most things. I’ve even gone with him to visit the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Sydney. In my heart of hearts, I hope that he is my brother in Christ, and not just because he’s a good friend, but because I’ve talked with and listened to him on many things. But I must confess that I have reservations about him because of my knowledge of what Roman Catholics believe and do. Essentially, I don’t know. So in my lack of knowledge, I couldn’t minister alongside him in Gospel work. But I can hope to God and pray for him. I can ask our friendship grows stronger, and that God would give me true discernment, based on the Spirit and in truth.

What do you think? Are Catholics in the Kingdom? As far as I have thought about it, I would say: Maybe. It depends on the individual person you’re talking about. May the God of grace grant us the grace to love each other and to judge and divide properly and impartially, not based on mere appearances.

St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Sydney.

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cathedral, Sydney.

Thoughts about Christian Love and Freedom

What should life look like for the committed Christian? Should life merely be a list of rules and regulations? Should we wage war and force others to submit to Jesus’ way? Is that how God works? Is God a faceless, war-waging legalistic deity of “Dos” and “Don’ts”?

Well, I don’t think so.

According to my Bible, God is a Father. And Jesus, his Son, said: “My kingdom is not of this world; if it were my people would fight… [M]y kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36.)

Jesus taught that his kingdom — the Kingdom of Heaven — should conquer the world, but not by the physical sword. Heaven should conquer spiritually — not by cleaving open men’s flesh with physical blades and blows, but by slicing through men’s hearts and souls by the sword of the Holy Spirit — that is, the Word of God — by the grace and love of God, making alive the conscience, and turning dead men away from sin, Satan and darkness back to follow Christ’s light, walking closely with God.

Consider what the apostle Paul said: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. ” (Ephesians 6:12.)

Paul believed the Christian’s fight in this world — our purpose — was to strive, not with people, but with Satan (the Enemy of mankind) and his evil spiritual kingdom. Our weapon? The Good News (or Gospel) message about Jesus: that because of what Christ has done in dying for us and rising again, we can be completely forgiven of all our sins and enter back into a living, loving relationship with God our Father forever and ever, if only we trust in, follow and obey him.

Satan hates this message because it alone gives people hope to escape death and hell. The Gospel causes people to turn from their evil ways to live a life of love for God and their neighbour. Satan hates love, because “God is Love” (1 John 4:8, 16), and Satan hates God. In fact, Satan hates all that God loves, and God loves the whole world — every man, woman and child: “The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made” (Psalms 145:9).

Indeed, love is the highest rule of the Christian’s battle: “Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:1-2.)

And again: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. ” (1 Corinthians 13:13.)

What is love? The biblical word I am thinking of is agapethe total sacrifice of one’s whole self for the good of the other person. According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is to love — first for God and then for neighbour — as the Bible says: “‘Love [agapao] the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Luke 10:27)

In contrast to the Christian God, the God of Islam — Allah — provides a helpful comparison and contrast. According to the founder of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, Allah (God) is not a God of love. According to the Qur’an (Koran), Allah does not love non-Muslims (a.k.a. “infidels” or “unbelievers”). (See Qur’an 3:31-32 and 30:43-45.) Of all the names of Allah in the Qur’an — Most Merciful, All-Seeing, Wise, etc. — not one of them is “Love.” Allah is called “Loving” (that is, toward the Muslim people alone). But Allah is never called “Love” itself. Should we really be surprised, then, that 10-15% of Muslims in the world (about 100 million people) are radical terrorist Jihadists (jihad means “holy war”), who will fight in Allah’s name to spread their religion forcefully and violently, without mercy, slaying all those who might resist them? Corresponding to the unloving nature of God in Islam, God is actually quite non-relational towards puny creatures like us humans. For Allah, we humans are like tiny ants, and who could ever have real affections for ants? And Islam as a religion is extremely legalistic and good-works orientated. Islam is all about rules.

In contrast, the God of the Bible became an ant. More exactly, God became human and was made flesh to dwell among us and show us the way back to himself: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Why? Because he loves us. Indeed, “God is Love” (1 John 4:8, 16). According to the Bible, God himself stepped into our world in the person of Jesus to express his love for us by dying for us and rising again, simply to save us: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16.)

God’s love sets us free to die to self and to live a life of love to him and others to the fullest extent possible. We love God and others not to earn God’s favour, but because we are his children, and we want to be like him, knowing that our purpose and being is bound up in God’s purpose to make us children of light and full of love, just as God is. As Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10:10.)

God has made us free always to enjoy what life gives us. But we always have to remember to put God first. For instance, we need to know that physical training (sport, exercise, diet, etc.) is of some value, but godliness of character (“love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” — Galatians 5:22-23) is even better (1 Timothy 4:8). Similarly, money is good. But we must keep out lives free from the love of money (1 Timothy 6:6-10; Hebrews 13:5-6) knowing that we cannot serve both God and riches (Matthew 6:24).

According to the Bible, life and enjoyment are not bad things. What is bad is merely snatching them from the Father’s hand without any thanks to or regard for him who has given them all to you, and without any interest as to what he might want you to do with them.

The Book of Ecclesiastes 11:9, which was probably written by King Solomon (Israel’s most wealthy and successful King), puts it this way:

“You who are young, be happy while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you into judgment.”

God invites us all to live a life that is truly life — a life in full communion or relationship with him. We as Christians can take God’s blessings and enjoy them in full freedom. But our freedom cannot become a license to sin. We must always be humble and give God the glory for everything that he has given us, because — as Jacob (translated “James”), Jesus’ own brother, said almost two thousand years ago: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows” (James [Jacob] 1:17).

For the Christian, it is not hypocrisy to enjoy life. God intends for us to live that way. But because sin is so deceptive and all-consuming in our world, we must walk in wisdom. ust becasue God wants us to be free and enjoy life doesn’t mean we can just go out, get blind drunk and have heaps of non-marital sex. (Actually, sinning in such ways will always invariably lead to greater unhappiness and lack of fulfillment. It’s little wonder, then, why God would teach us to avoid them in the first place: — they will ultimately harm and destroy us.) Rather, as Paul says: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to the chains of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1.) God has freed us to live as God intended: not in bondage to sin, but in the liberty of the Spirit: “For where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). Therefore, true life and enjoyment both can and must be found outside of sin and in keeping in step with the Spirit of God, and living how God wants you to (Galatians 5:25).

So what about those “Christians” who would physically wage war with the sword or with fists or with cruel words in Jesus’ name? What about those who turn Christian religion into a list of “Dos” and “Don’ts”? Well, I’d point them back to the Bible. Those persons are simply not living consistently “CHRIST-IAN” (= “Christ-like”) lives. They’re blind to the reality taught and modeled by Jesus and his earliest followers. Having true faith means living a vibrant life of love walking with God and each other. It is our highest joy and strength to walk as the Lord wants us to walk. Would not “the Author of Life” (a reference to Jesus in Acts 3:15) know how to live life well? People who fail to see this are living against Christ and his plain teaching, ad contrary to all reason and good sense.

We all need to judge Christianity (or any religion for that matter) on the teaching and example set by its founder. How did Jesus himself live? Or… “What Would Jesus Do?” Can we find any fault in him? If you strive to live as Jesus lived, putting God first, others second, and yourself last, then in such godliness you will have contentment, find true freedom and real inexpressible joy serving God as a disciple of his Son.

May God richly bless you.

[Words = 1631.]