I am writing this on May 30th, 2015.
A friend of mine linked me to a disturbing article about the sovereignty of God, written by Mark Woods. After reading, the only thing more surprising to me than the lack of any biblical, Christian orthodoxy was the fact that I was surprised that Christianity Today published an article so void of any biblical, Christian orthodoxy.
Reverend Mark Woods, if this article is an indication, is an-in-the-closet Open Theist. His first point is that God doesn’t plan evil, and his conclusion is that God accompanies us into a future that wasn’t planned. Along with unbiblical, watered down Open-Theism; the article also demonstrates self-refuting arguments and false dichotomies. The article opens up with a very important false dichotomy that continues to resurface.
“God has a wonderful plan for your life. It’s evangelical orthodoxy, on a par with belief in substitutionary atonement and the sanctity of Spurgeon. It’s part of the salvation package, along with forgiveness of sins and life everlasting. Christianity isn’t just true; it offers the sure and certain knowledge that whatever happens to you is God’s will. If you don’t like it, it’s because you haven’t understood it. I don’t believe a word of it.”
Ignoring the fact the substitutionary atonement seems to be a part of the orthodox, historical, biblical theology that Woods doesn’t “believe a word of,” a false dichotomy is already presented in the opening line. “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” The rest of the article is not only denouncing a “wonderful plan,” but any plan at all (see the title). The idea that God has a wonderful plan for your life is not synonymous with “God has a plan for your life.” I too openly attack the term “God has a wonderful plan for your life”, as because of the connotations and ambiguity of it. However, although Woods sufficiently refutes the wonderful plan idea later in the article, Woods is not simply rejecting the prosperity gospel’s twist on “a wonderful plan,” he is rejecting God having any plan at all.
“I understand where people who think like this are coming from, I really do. They have a deep sense of the sovereignty of God. They want to affirm his power. They’re dismayed by any idea that things just happen and that life, as far as we can tell, is random. We might not know why things happen, but God’s working to his own agenda…the bad things that happen to you are God’s doing and part of the master-work he’s making of your life. I see the attraction. But I think the idea that God deliberately weaves dark threads into our lives is theologically flawed and psychologically cruel. I think we should stop saying it and start offering people something more real, more exciting, more dangerous and more true.”
Apparently, God being sovereign and powerful is God weaving dark threads into our lives, dark threads that Romans 8 teaches are “for our good.” Was Joseph getting sold into slavery by his brothers a dark thread? Was God in control over that situation? Was Calvary a dark thread? Apparently God being sovereign over those makes Him psychologically cruel, unreal, unexciting, and false.
“Here’s my problem. There are two accounts of God’s sovereignty which are equally questionable. Let’s call the first the ‘hard’ version. In this one, God’s sovereignty is a deterministic philosophy in which human free will is an illusion.”
It is not the case that free-will is so black and white that there are only two options: a God with limited sovereignty and man with autonomy, or a God with sovereignty and man as robots. That’s not what the Bible presents.
Free will is not a biblical term. It is never used in the Scriptures; yet, the Scripture is our inspired foundation for our anthropology. The Scriptures teach us, with great detail, about the nature of man. Where is the biblical understanding of the nature of man’s will?
The Scriptures present us with a nature of man that allows for both human accountability and Divine sovereignty. We have to believe what the Bible teaches about the will of man as opposed to the Greek’s philosophical free-will contribution. The Biblical proof that God holds men accountable for their actions are abundant and don’t seem to be something Woods disagrees with. Allow that to stand. However, the Bible simultaneously teaches much about the “enslavement” of that will.
“For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” – Romans 8: 6-9
What does Paul say about the will of man before regeneration? It has an inability, not a freedom but a limitation. The mind set on the flesh cannot please God. Where is the free will? Can the mind set on the flesh please God or submit freely to His law? No, it is unable to do that. It is not free to that capacity.
What about God’s nature? Is God a robot? I doubt Woods would argue that. However, Scripture thrice affirms it is “impossible” for God to lie (Numbers 23: 19, Hebrews 6:18, Titus 1:2). Does God have the free will to lie? No. Does God have free moral agency? Yes.
What about Heaven? Can the saints in Heaven lie, cheat, steal and lust? No. That can’t happen. Yet, they are still people, they still love, they still make choices freely. The Bible teaches the will of man is more complex than simple free will or no will distinctions. Men make un-compelled, free, moral decisions, yet, their wills are enslaved and corrupt, so that are not totally “free” in the way autonomous free will demands. They are no freer than a tiger is free to become a vegetarian. No one forces the tiger to eat meat, but that is the tiger’s only available choice because wills are tied to the nature of the object. Sinners want sin. Perhaps a better analogy is the rhetorical question offered by Jeremiah 13:23,
“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Then also you can do good who are accustomed to do evil.”
Sinners sin and can do nothing but sin because they are enslaved to their sinful nature, not because God compels or forces them. That is why Jeremiah parallels moral decisions to physical attributes.
“You have to put up with bad things happening to you because it’s ultimately for your own good, just as a child has to put up with a measles vaccination.”
Or like Joseph had to put up with slavery, or like how Job had to put up with losing his health and family, or like Jonah had to put up with drowning, or like how Paul had to put up with imprisonment, or like how Jesus had to put up with Calvary… the list continues. The author can degrade the idea of suffering being for our good, but it is biblical and meaningful.
“In some unspecified and incomprehensible way, we still have free will and moral agency. But ultimately, the awful power and majesty of God overrules and overwhelms: all we can do is resign ourselves to his will.”
If God is good and holy, His power controlling our lives cannot be awful. And the resigning of ourselves to the will of God is exactly the response Scripture calls suffering Christians do. Take Job for example, after God decreed and allowed horrible suffering on Job’s part, Job eventually slips into sin during his grieving time. The Lord rebukes Job, and how does He do this? For four chapters God asks hypothetical questions that Job can’t answer regarding His own power and Job’s own humanity. He begins by asking Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:2). Some of His other questions include:
“Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high? (39:27).”
“Can you draw out a Leviathan with a fishhook?” (41:1).
What is the purpose of these questions? The purpose is to bring Job, and all future readers, to the place where we see we cannot question God’s unstoppable ways. Who are we to question God? God says this Himself to Job,
“Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it” (40:2).
This exact theme of God being God, and us not having the right to judge His actions and decisions is repeated thousands of years later by Paul when he wrote about predestination to the Romans. After answering the question he knew would arise (why would God still hold men accountable for sin and unbelief if it was His will that they would not) Paul answers by saying,
“But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” (Romans 9: 20-21).
Woods can mock this response by condescendingly phrasing it as “the awful power and majesty of God” which “overrules and overwhelms: all we can do is resign ourselves to his will.” But, I prefer Job’s response to Woods’:
“Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer [God]? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job 40:4).
I’ll follow Job and Paul, and I will rejoice in the fact that God is God and I am not, and that believing He is is sovereign is something I joyfully embrace, not reluctantly resign to.
“Some things that happen are just too terrible to justify by talk of dark threads or universal good. If we’re to believe that God plans the tsunami, the cancer, [ISIS], or [eye worms that grow in children’s eyes], what’s required of us is not just a leap of faith, but a suspension of our moral judgment.”
Open-Theism rears its ugly head. Apparently, to believe that God planned “dark threads” forces one to suspend moral judgment.
First, he mentions tsunamis. Now, it seems very difficult to biblically or philosophically believe that God does not plan and control tsunamis. Does God not clearly control the weather in Scripture? Does Jesus not calm the waters on the stormy lake? Does Jonah not inherently know the tempest destroying his boat was God’s judgment on him? Were the plagues that afflicted Pharaoh’s Egypt just a fortunate coincidence for the God who can’t control the weather? To believe God cannot stop a tsunami is to reject the God of the Bible. God does control these things.
The same goes for cancer and eye-worms. How did a donkey speak if God has no control over what animals do? That’s no longer a miracle but a simple scientific absurdity. How lucky was Jonah that a fish swallowed him to save him from drowning apart from the god who cannot control animals. I wonder, why did Jonah believe the fish was from God (Jonah 1:17)? Doesn’t Jonah know God doesn’t plan or control animals? As we already examined, apparently God misunderstood His own abilities telling Job that He controls what eagles and leviathans do. If God controls leviathans, He controls the eye worms.
Cancer, being an act of nature, falls into these same categories. Is God sovereign over the material realm? He is. That includes material viruses. However, alongside that, even if God doesn’t control the cancer virus, He demonstrates an ability to heal people in Scripture. Why doesn’t He heal all cancer patients? Isn’t Jesus capable of healing? These questions lead to Woods’ primary issue. He is trying so hard to get God “off the hook” that he doesn’t realize he has only kicked the can a little further down the road, and simultaneously challenged God’s character and attributes in the process. Even if we assume God doesn’t plan tsunamis, worms, or cancers, we are still left with the question of why He allows them. God clearly controls the weather and the universe. In Woods’ worldview, God doesn’t plan tsunamis, cancer, and eye-worms but He very often does nothing to stop these things when He can. What’s the moral difference?
How is Woods’ view of God off the hook? Would telling Job that God didn’t plan his sufferings but actively allowed Satan to do everything while maintaining the ability end it help Job at all? Woods’ view of God is still on one of these three hooks.
- He chooses not to stop them when He easily could (meaning the moral tension is still present).
- He wants to stop them but He cannot do so (rejecting Scripture’s clear teachings about His ability to do so).
- He doesn’t know they are going to happen and cannot do anything about them when they do (See above).
Even given Woods’ theology, how is he still not required to suspend his moral judgment?
“‘Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and darkness who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter,’ says Isaiah (5:20).”
At least we finally have an attempt to support these beliefs biblically. The problem is this proof-text is nowhere relevant. Isaiah judges people who think sin is not sin. How is that relevant to God’s sovereignty over history? God judges those who put darkness for light. That is true. What else does Isaiah say about darkness and light?
“I am the Lord and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:6-7).
God creates calamity and darkness. How could Woods possibly affirm that given this article? The Bible teaches God creates calamity and controls the weather. How can Woods’ not affirm God is responsible for tsunamis?
“God does not plan evil.”
As was stated in the introduction, this statement is the thesis of the article and is the catalyst for all of those who choose Open-Theism. Is this statement biblical? Many texts could be pointed to in regards to this discussion, but two primary texts have been used over the last 500 years that will suffice (since I haven’t come up with a better solution for the wheel yet).
The first is Genesis 50:20,
“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
That seems to be the nail in the coffin for Woods’ claim that “some things are just too terrible to justify with talk of…universal good”. Not only is this text perfectly comfortable justifying Joseph’s circumstances with a universal good (keeping everyone alive) but it also speaks directly to God’s intentions (plan) for Joseph’s circumstances.
Joseph went through some pretty terrible things. His brothers hated him and wanted to kill him. That’s terrible. They threw him in a ditch. That’s terrible. They sold him to foreigners and he became a slave. That’s terrible. He was taken to a new land where he was imprisoned, enslaved, and away from his family. That’s terrible. After rising to some power, he is falsely accused of sexual misconduct and is again imprisoned. That’s terrible. During this entire time, he knows his parents are suffering. That’s terrible. Not to mention, the events that took place hurt his parents. His father was lied to by his children. That’s terrible. His father thought his favorite son was brutally eaten to death. That’s terrible. And how does Genesis 50 describe all of these events? They are described as the intentions of God. God intended for these terrible things to happen. God’s purposes for them were good in contrast to the brother’s evil intentions. But, God intended for them to happen. God was not asleep during Joseph’s terrible trials.
Job, after terrible things happened to him, admits to God under rebuke that
“I know that [God] can do all things and no plan of [His ]can be thwarted” (Job 42:2).
Thus, if no plan of God can be thwarted, then does that not mean Joseph’s terrible circumstances were the “unthwarted” plan of God? God can rescue Joseph from his misery. Why doesn’t He do what He can do and save Joseph? That’s not part of the plan.
“My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all my good and pleasure… Truly I have spoken; truly I will bring it to pass. I have planned it, surely I will do it.”
That’s Isaiah. All that happens in history is part of the plan. There is no escaping this concept. All things that happen in history are part of God’s intentions being worked together “according to His purpose after the counsel of His will” (Ephesians 1:11), yet His intentions and purposes are good. He uses evil human means (like the brothers), and they are justly condemned, but His intentions and purposes are good and self-glorifying.
There is likely no better example to refute Woods’ thesis than the cross itself. Acts 2:23,
“this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
The tension Woods draws between God’s active decree and the moral responsibility of man is not one the Scriptures present. According to this verse, men are accountable to God for their moral decisions. Peter describes them as “lawless.” They transgressed the law. God and Peter are not pleased with these men. However, what does the verse say about the cross? It is the predestined plan of God. Woods’ title that God doesn’t have a plan for our lives is contradicted entirely by this one verse; it’s refuted by the very Gospel itself.
The fact that the Bible speaks this way of the cross is incredibly important because the cross is the most evil, horrific thing that has ever happened. Woods tries to establish his Pathos in the article by attaching to it the picture of a grave side. The caption on it reads:
“Two rows of white arches near the top of the Aberfan cemetery mark the graves of the children killed in the colliery tip disaster of 1966.”
Woods’ thesis is that some things are too horrible to say they were part of a Divine plan. He attempts to win our emotions by pointing us to something truly horrible, dead children. However, what’s worse than children dying? The answer is God dying. The most horrible thing that’s ever happened is not Stephen Fry’s eye-worm, cancer, infant mortality, or the holocaust; the worst evil that has ever happened is the murder of the only innocent man, the unique and perfect Son of the Most High God, and the Bible is crystal clear: that was planned. Isaiah 53: 10,
“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him.”
How can in-the-closet-Open-Theist account for this biblical reality? Peter doesn’t stop in Acts 2. He continues this theme in another sermon to the Jews and speaks these divinely inspired words,
“[F]or truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27-28).
Yet again, the evil of the cross is called a predestined purpose. If the Bible is comfortable teaching that God planned the most horrible evil against His own perfect, unique Son, why are we to be biblically uncomfortable with the idea that God plans much lesser evils against His creaturely, sinful, adopted children? The claim “God does not plan evil” has been refuted by the Holy Spirit’s words in the book of Acts.
“But either way, the idea that God plans our lives is, from a scriptural point of view, deeply suspect. Where does the idea that God has our lives mapped out for us come from? Biblically, it’s often related to Jeremiah 29: 11, ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ There are other verses that speak of him working behind the scenes to bring about a particular result. The trouble is that in too much evangelical rhetoric, these verses have had a weight put on them that they can’t possibly bear. So we’re forced into all sorts of mental gymnastics to try to justify the idea that God has a plan for each individual..”
Notice the utter lack of any meaningful interaction with the text. How can we take a position seriously if those who espouse it demonstrate such an unwillingness to meaningfully interact with the texts of Scripture? Woods just mentioned that there are other verses (as has been shown) that suggest God is in fact sovereign over history, and his response is a claim that these interpretations place too heavy a weight. Two words: prove it, exegete Scripture. Demonstrate the claim to be true. This is simply an unfounded opinion without even an attempt at Scripture and logic to justify it.
“even when this idea so clearly fails the test of experience.”
This is terrifying, but it reveals so much. Ultimately, what is Woods’ standard? Feelings. This is very emblematic of the evangelical culture at large. Local churches across the country are folding on important issues such as homosexuality, transgenderism, complementarianism, and even the Gospel itself, not because they are convinced by the biblical text, but because they feel certain ways. Our feelings are our new Bibles. The reason Woods hasn’t interacted with Scripture is because experience is the genesis for this theology.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t believe God’s plans for anyone include bereavement, divorce, redundancy or large-scale tragedy.”
It included a Cross for Jesus.
“There is a heartbreaking film of a clergyman interviewed after the 1966 Aberfan disaster which killed 144 people, most of them children, when a slag heap collapsed on top of a school. ‘There has to be a plan,’ he chokes out. ‘I have to believe that.’ And that’s the problem: take away the idea that God’s in control of everything that happens, and the alternative is too terrifying to contemplate.
This is true. The alternative is too terrifying. How could we possibly find comfort in knowing that we can experience things that God does not want us to but can’t prevent it? How could we possibly find any hope in believing that all the time things are happening to us that God desperately doesn’t want to? Evil can thwart God. If that’s the case, what confidence can we have in our own salvation? If God can’t protect us from physical danger and peril, who says He can protect us from spiritual danger and peril? If things can happen to us physically that God cannot prevent or stop then we cannot trust our own salvation.
“There’s another way of looking at it, though. Suppose that, instead of trying to map a philosophical determinism or a spiritual consumerism on to the Bible, we actually read it?”
Remember, this is coming from someone who, so far, has provided no exegesis on any text of Scripture, nor dealt with opposing texts, in any meaningful way.
“When we do that, we don’t find the God of the philosophers and scholars or the God of the shopping mall. We find the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We don’t find that God plans our future. We find that he accompanies us into it. It’s his presence with us that takes us safely through the valley of the shadow of death, not his hand on the steering wheel.”
Here we finally have it. We finally have the thesis. What is the alternative to a God who is in supreme control of our circumstances, it’s a God “accompanies us into our future.” That’s a meaningless phrase. It’s absolutely meaningless. What does that mean? How is that a contrast? How is that phrase “something more real, more exciting, more dangerous and more true?”’
First of all, the biblical, compatibilist view of God’s decree doesn’t deny this; it’s another false dichotomy. One can preach what Paul preached, that God is working all things together according to the council of His will, and teach that God is accompanies us in time as we work out those things. Yes, God accompanies us in our circumstances and future. What does that have to do with whether or not our circumstances are working out in a plan of God or thwarting His desires and plans? Believing in a decree is not a denial of omnipresence and personal relationship.
Second, what does this ambiguous and hallow phrase imply? It certainly seems to imply one of two things. Either, God is just as surprised by our circumstances as we are, or it implies that the events in our life are completely outside of God’s control, but He at least will be there as they happen. Either way I can smell Open-Theism. The view that “God accompanies us into our future” is not only far less biblical than a divine decree, but it also provides no more pastoral comfort. One side can say, “God is accompanying you in your suffering,” while the other can say, “God is accompany you in your suffering which He has complete control over and is working in divine ways to bring about a good that you won’t be disappointed in.” The biblical teaching of decree is a far better alternative.
“I believe we’d be spiritually healthier if we dropped talk of God having a plan for our lives, and started talking about God having a hope for our future – a hope that’s ultimately based in resurrection.”
No, we would be spiritually healthier if we submitted to God’s revelation about who He is and how He works. However, what does it mean that God has a “hope for our future?” Again, this is utterly meaningless. This is a dance.
The only hopeful future a sinner like me could possibly have is one that God is taking care of. My hope comes when I know that God holds my future.
What’s interesting is that Woods wants our hope to be based in resurrection. Was the resurrection planned? Was that a plan of God? Was it possible for it to fail? Woods’ appeal for a foundation of hope is borrowing from the biblical worldview of the divine decree. The resurrection was a predestined plan that God actively controlled and could not fail in accomplishing. Apparently, that’s supposed to ground our hope in the God who doesn’t actively plan our lives. We need something planned to believe there is no plan.
“God’s hope for our future is about second chances, about choices and new beginnings. At every stage of our lives we’re faced with decisions, usually at a practical level but sometimes at a moral level. Practically, I might make all sorts of mistakes, from a choice of career to a choice of car or house. But God’s hope for my future means that within that wrong choice there are right choices to make – and his desire is for me to flourish, within the context in which I find myself and according to my capacity, and above all for me to become more Christlike. I don’t need to be rich, or healthy, or admired, for that to happen.”
This is more irrelevant, meaningless fluff. It’s in no way related to the question at hand. This is not a response.
What is interesting is the idea that God wants us to become more Christlike. Ephesians 2: 8-10 says this of the elect, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” It sounds like our conformity to Christ is something that was planned before the world was formed. Paul doesn’t shy away from this concept. He teaches it again in his letter to the church in Rome, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29). Again, it is God’s plan that we are to become more Christlike. And when examining Genesis 50, Acts 2 and Acts 4 it also shows that that plan in no way contradicts our “choices” in the process.
“Morally, I might commit all sorts of sins – and I have. They don’t fit into the ‘plan’ idea, either: but I know God has never given up on me. So every time I take the wrong path at a fork in the road, I know I’ll come to another fork before long.”
Again, the assumption is that sin can’t be part of the plan while God maintains His justice. But, let’s remind ourselves of Acts yet again. Acts two describes the cross as a predestined plan and the actions of lawless men. The Bible presents both. Genesis 50 presents that God’s will was for Joseph to be sold into slavery for a great good, yet, his brothers action of selling him is described as “evil.” Sin is a part of the plan; the plan God set forth to most glorify Himself.
“Again, there’ll be a choice: and the more wrong turns you take, the harder it becomes to do the right thing and get to the right place, but it’s never impossible with God as your guide.”
There has not been nearly enough detail, explanation, and biblical support on behalf of Woods’ position to know what it means at all for “God to be our guide.” What does that mean?
“The resurrection of Jesus was God’s statement that hope never ends.”
This is irrelevant. It’s true, it sounds good, but it’s irrelevant and doesn’t answer any questions nor provide any meaningful explanation of the alternative view of sovereignty being espoused.
“I don’t believe God has a plan for my life. But I believe that he has a desire for me, to be filled with his Spirit and made Christ-like. So, ‘Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom … Keep thou my feet, I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.'”
God’s desire for Woods’ to be made Christlike is also God’s predestined plan (Ephesians 2/ Romans 8).
As I said at the beginning, I began writing this on May 30th, 2015. Why was that important? This is the day that I was supposed to be married. My fiancé had a change of heart four months before our would-be wedding day. I began writing this on the day, four months prior, I was to be wedded with the love of my life forever. And that union was taken from me. The point of this autobiographical note is not to suggest I went through something as horrible as cancer, or losing children, or divorce, etc. However, it was still a long time of pain and confusion. Many sleepless nights were spent in tears wondering why my fiancé of six months and girlfriend of three years left me. In that chaos, what was my hope? My hope was not in a vague statement that “God accompanied me into this now present event.” He did, but there is so much more. My hope came from knowing that every second of that experience was according to the plan of a God who loves me more than I can imagine. Knowing, that a loving Creator, the God who gave His life for me, had me where He wanted me, was the hope I needed. I never once experienced something God did not want, and I never once went through something that God is not using for a greater good. Knowing God planned my heartbreak was the most hopeful thing I could possibly cling to. I know that God’s plan was not for me to get married. The loss of my engagement was not an enemy’s victory over God’s plan. It was not a surprise to God. It was exactly what God wanted and was a preventative step toward exactly what God didn’t want.
That’s the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. A loving, sovereign God, who actively accomplishes His good purposes in the lives of His people, is something real, exciting, dangerous and true.