Doctrine of God – Part 29
God’s Foreknowledge and the Cross of Christ
Introduction: Open-view theists use orthodox terms like sovereignty and omniscience, but they have radically re-defined their meaning. According to Open-view theism God exercises his sovereignty with the same kind of limitations that we experience. “God,” declares Clark Pinnock, “responds and adapts to surprises and to the unexpected. God sets goals for creation and redemption and realizes them ad hoc in history. If Plan A fails, God is ready with Plan B.”[i]
We are also informed by Open View theists that God actually does not know with certainty what his own creatures will decide or do in the future. This pertains not only to the distant future but also to the immediate future i.e., the next decision you or I or anybody else will make. Open View theist David Basinger explains, “But since we believe that God can know only what can be known and that what humans will freely do in the future cannot be known beforehand, we believe that God can never know with certainty what will happen in any context involving freedom of choice.”[ii]
The God of Open View theism predicts the future with the same kind of limitations that humans have. He has a general idea of what He would like to see happen, but He cannot determine the details of any event. This is because the God of Open View theism cannot predetermine nor can He know with certainty what any free creature will do in the future. Pinnock summarizes, “Decisions not yet made do not exist anywhere to be known even by God. They are potential—yet to be realized but not yet actual. God can predict a great deal of what we will choose to do, but not all of it, because some of it remains hidden in the mystery of human freedom…The God of the Bible displays an openness to the future (i.e., ignorance of the future) that the traditional view of omniscience simply cannot accommodate.”[iii]
Is this acceptable? Does this affect our understanding of other Christian doctrines? Jonathan Edwards answers this way, “If God (doesn’t) foreknow the volition of moral agents, then he did not foreknow the fall of man, or of angels, and so could not foreknow the great things which were consequent on these events; such as his sending his Son into the world to die for sinners, and all things pertaining to the great work of redemption; all the things which were done four thousand years before Christ came, to prepare the way for it; and the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ…etc.”[iv]
What do Open View theists do with the cross of Christ? How does this central theological and historical event fit into their scheme of things? The Bible seems to indicate very clearly that this was something God not only knew would happen, but determined that it would take place (Acts 2:23; 4:27,28). But, according to Open View theist John Sanders this is not the case. In his book The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence (IVP, 1998) Sanders tells us it is a mistake to believe that before Creation God planned Jesus’ crucifixion. Likewise, it is a mistake to believe that God had previously appointed Judas to betray Jesus to his death. So, when Jesus announces during the Passover meal that one of the disciples will ‘hand him over’ (PARADIDŌMI declares Sanders, does not mean ‘betray’)[v] to the temple authorities (p. 98), we are wrong to think that Judas “betrayed” Jesus, and we are wrong to suppose that this is working out in keeping with some grand design that God had previously planned. Sanders assuredly claims, “A risk is involved here, since there is no guarantee which way Judas will decide…None of this was predetermined” (p. 99).
Sanders does not account for texts such as John 13:ll—”’For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.”[vi] According to Sanders, if God has a preordained plan of meticulous providence, then in it’s outworking he must be a tyrant who forces his will upon people. But if God’s plan is only a sketchy framework of general providence, then in its outworking God does not always get His way because he is contingent and dependent upon human choices. Sanders believes this may be seen plainly in the Crucifixion. In the Garden of Gethsemane, “Jesus wrestles with God’s will because he does not believe that everything must happen according to a predetermined plan…Together they determine what the will of God is for this historical situation. Although Scripture attests that the incarnation was planned from the creation of the world, this is not so with the cross. The path of the cross comes about only through God’s interaction with human history. Until this moment in History other routes were, perhaps, open…Jesus is in the canoe heading for the falls. There is yet time to get over to shore and portage around the falls. Jesus seeks to determine if that option meets with his Father’s favor. But the canyon narrows even for God”(pp. 100-101).
Incredibly, Sanders tells us the Crucifixion was not part of God’s story line until the night before it occurs. For on that dark night in the Garden “Father and Son, in seeking to accomplish the project, both come to understand that there is no other way” (p. 101). But once it is determined that Jesus must die, uncertainty still remains. “Will this gambit work?”[vii] (p. 101). Sanders acknowledges, “The notion that the cross was not planned prior to creation will seem scandalous to some readers” (p.101). Indeed it will. There are numerous places in all the gospels that make it clear that the Cross was not planned the night before the Crucifixion, but before Creation (e.g., Mark 8:31ff; 9:31-32; 10:32ff).[viii]
I. ACTS 2:23
At the beginning of Peter’s Pentecost sermon he says: “You nailed up and killed this man through the agency of wicked men, who was delivered over by God’s fixed purpose and foreknowledge.” We should begin by observing that the object of God’s foreknowledge in Acts 2:23 is primarily his own action: his “delivering over” of Christ. God had an active role in Christ’s death in that “he did not spare his own Son…but delivered him over on behalf of us all” (Rom. 8:32). God gave his only begotten Son (John 3:16). Paul says, “God set forth Jesus to be a propitiation for sin (Rom.3:25). Peter clearly says that God knew ahead of time that he would allow Christ to be killed (Acts4:28), and Peter reinforces the point by citing David’s witness to the whole affair in various psalms: “since he was a prophet . . . he foresaw…” (Acts 2:29-31). Christ’s death did not take God by surprise.
Furthermore, God also foreknew the free decisions of Christ’s murderers: “You killed this man.” God knew that there would be people willing to crucify Christ, evidenced, for example, in Psalm 22. The biblical witness is united in pointing to God’s predestined initiative in their actions: “Herod and Pontius Pilate…have assembled…to accomplish whatsoever your hand and purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:27-28). “The Son of Man is about to depart in accordance with what has been determine” (Luke 22:22); “He must[ix] …be killed” (Matt.16:21) in accordance with prophecy (Luke 24:46; Acts3:18), and so on. The way Peter expresses God’s resolve in Acts2:23 is with the word BOULĒ, “purpose”. This word has a range of meanings revolving around the act of deliberation over a matter. When used of God, BOULĒ frequently refers to his purpose foreordained to accomplish his planned redemption (Acts4:28), which was carried forward in earlier generations by saints such as David (Acts13:36). It is explicitly something that results from his will (Eph.1:11), and by putting himself under oath, God has demonstrated that this purpose is unchangeable (Heb.6:17; cf. Luke 1:72-73; Isa. 55:11).
We can take the phrase fixed purpose in Acts 2:23 to refer to God’s determined resolve to hand his Son over that he might save his people. This is especially clear because of the modifying participle HŌRISMENĒ, translated “fixed,” which communicates in this form something settled or determined (cf. Luke 22:22). God was determined to accomplish his purpose, and it was thereby certain to occur. And we can conclusively infer from Peter’s remark that Christ “was delivered over by God’s fixed purpose and foreknowledge,” that God had clear prescience of all that surrounded Christ’s death, not through mere foresight of decisions beyond his control, but because he had determined to bring it about. God’s foreknowledge is joined to his will. This is further confirmed as the only legitimate interpretation of Acts 2:23 when we appreciate the sensitive use of the Greek article in the phrase, (God’s fixed purpose and foreknowledge). By using one article for the two nouns purpose and foreknowledge, Peter is expressing a close interconnection between the two.[x]
God’s foreknowledge of the events of Christ’s death included his planning and willing them to occur. Hence the certainty of God’s knowledge of the event was conditioned not because he merely observed the “pure contingency” of the human decisions involved. It was certain and foreknown because God had determined to accomplish it: “I am God, there is none like me. I declare the outcome from the beginning and from antiquity things which have not yet been done, saying, my purpose will be established, and I will do all my good pleasure” (Isa. 46:9-10). The great Puritan divine Stephen Charnock long ago wrote, “But as God sees things possible in the glass of his own power, so he sees things future in the glass of his own will.”[xi]
Acts 2:23 also implies another truth that must not be overlooked: Humans possess genuine, unforced volition and are thereby morally responsible. Although God accomplished his fixed purpose by handing Christ over to the cross, he himself did not crucify him; “You nailed up and killed this man through the agency of wicked men.” Peter’s hearers and their agents were both the culpable participants in Christ’s death. God ordains all that comes to pass, but “neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established” (Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 3, sec. 1).
Conclusion: Because the Cross is central to the Christian faith, it is necessary to point out the gravity of what Sanders is arguing. He plainly affirms that God the Father and God the Son did not plan the Crucifixion before creating all things. Rather, they both came to realize, that dark night in Gethsemane, that there was no alternative. As Sanders strives to be consistent within his theological commitments, he regrettably challenges very the heart of Christian faith. Apart from God’s purposed intention to crush his own Son as the substitute who took upon himself “our transgressions’ and “our iniquities” (Isa 53:5-6), Christ’s death is a pointless tragedy. D. A. Carson has wisely observed, “If the initiative had been entirely with the conspirators, and God simply came in at the last minute to wrest triumph from the jaws of impending defeat then the cross was not his plan, his purpose, the very reason why he had sent his Son into the world—and that is unthinkable.”[xii]
Evangelical denominations and educational institutions move away from orthodox Christian faith for lack of vigilance over incremental defections from Biblical truth. Each progressive deviation seems too small to justify a confrontation and discipline. It doesn’t seem worth the controversy and tension. It seems like a distraction from the task of evangelism and missions. Nevertheless, it is the very message and mission of the church that are being undermined. This is why the apostle Paul gave himself not only to proclamation, but also to “the defense and confirmation of the gospel” (Phil. 1:7). Bad theology hurts people and dishonors God. Sooner or later wrong thinking about God leads to wrong believing, and sooner or later wrong believing leads to the weakening of moral and spiritual life, and finally to condemnation. Most Christians see intuitively that denying God’s foreknowledge of free human actions will tend to undermine the confidence of the church that God can guide persons and nations, that he can answer prayer concerning the hearts of the erring and lost, that he can predict the future, that he can be assured of final triumph, and that all things will work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose. Some generation will pay the price of this wrong thinking about God. And the closer the wrong thinking gets to the center of God and his personal perfections and his saving ways, the sooner and the more painful will be the payment. Eternal things are at stake in the denial of the exhaustive foreknowledge of God. It is not a mere game of words.[xiii]
[i] C. Pinnock, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God (IVP, 1994), p. 113.
[ii] Ibid., p. 163.
[iii] C. Pinnock in The Grace of God, the Will of Man: A Case for Arminianism (Zondervan, 1989), p. 25.
[iv] The Works of Jonathan Edwards I (Yale Univ. Press, 1957), p. 252.
[v] Sanders constantly displays a noticeable linguistic inability. In his attempt to salvage his restrictive view that God has only present and past knowledge, he commits two fallacies in interpreting the root PARADIDŌMI in John’s gospel. He presumes that the etymology of the word establishes the meaning (the root fallacy), and he prescribes that one meaning (“hand over”) to every use of the word (the prescriptive fallacy) (pp. 98-9). He indulges in semantic anachronism by imposing the current English use of PROGNOSIS upon Luke’s use of the Greek word in Acts 2:23.
[vi] Jesus teaches that his ability to predict the free acts of responsible people is an essential part of his divine glory, so that the denial of this foreknowledge is, whether intended or not, an assault on the deity of Christ. For example, in John 13:19 Jesus says at the Last Supper, “From now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am.” With the words “I am” Jesus lays claim on deity with the words that God uses of himself in texts like Isaiah 43:10. And the warrant Jesus gives for believing that he is divine is that he is predicting the human evil acts which he infallibly foreknows are going to befall him in the next hours, including the betrayal of Judas and the denials of Peter. Therefore, the denial of Christ’s foreknowledge of human choices tends to undermine our confidence in the deity of Christ. Jesus’ knowledge of Peter’s three-fold denial is even more remarkable than his foreknowledge of Judas’ betrayal. In Luke 22:31-34, Jesus not only predicts that Peter will deny him three times that very night, but treats the act with such certainty that he is already praying for Peter’s future repentance and future ministry. ‘“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.’ But he said to Him, Lord, with You I am ready to go both to prison and to death!’ And He said, ‘I say to you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me.’” This absolute knowledge that Peter would sin, how often he would sin, when he would sin, and that he would repent does not remove Peter’s moral responsibility in the least, which is made plain by the fact that Peter weeps bitterly, precisely when he remembers the words of Jesus’ prediction. Jesus was glorious in the prediction, and Peter was guilty in his foreknown sin. Why do all four gospels tell this remarkable prediction in detail? Surely the deepest answer is the one given by John 13:19, “I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am.” His foreknowledge of “all that was coming upon him” was an essential aspect of his glory as the incarnate Word, the Son of God.
[vii] After referring to the Cross as a divine “gambit,” Sanders backs away from attempting to explain the significance of the Cross, saying, “There is profound mystery in what God was doing on the cross, and I do not pretend to understand it” (p. 104). Nevertheless, he explains, “First, I understand sin to primarily be alienation, or a broken relationship, rather than a state of being or guilt” (p. 105). With such an understanding of humanity’s plight, his explanation of the Cross predictably falls short of biblical descriptions. He says, “The cross did not transform the Father’s attitude toward sinners from hatred to love. The Father has always loved his creatures—in spite of sin” (p. 104). So, when Sanders goes on with his attempt to explain the significance of the Cross for God and humanity, he does so without a hint of divine wrath, without any allusion to God’s justice, and with no clear indication of substitution.
[viii] Regarding Rev. 13:8 that speaks of the Lamb (Christ) who was slain before the foundation of the World, Sanders candidly acknowledges that this text “is a bit more problematic” (p. 102). This does not deter him from dismissing the force of the text by arguing that the language is apocalyptic and as such should not be taken at face value!
[ix] The word trans. “must” is the Greek word DEI, which Warfield pointed out refers to “the Divine decree, as it has been appropriately called by which is suggested the necessity which rules over historical sequences. Cf. B. B. Warfield Biblical and Theological Studies (rpt. P & R, 1968), p. 304.
[x] In Greek grammar this is referred to as the Granville Sharp rule, which states: if two substantives are connected by KAI (and) both have the article, they refer to different persons or things, if the first has an article and the second does not, the second refers to the same person or thing as the first.
[xi] D. A. Carson, How Long, O Lord? (Baker, 1992), p. 212.
[xii] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God (rpt. Klock & Klock, 1979), p. 205.
[xiii] I am indebted to A. B. Caneday, “Putting God at Risk: A Critique of John Sanders’ View of Providence” Trinity Journal (1999), pp. 131-163; S. M. Baugh, “The Meaning of Foreknowledge” in The Grace of God; The Bondage of the Will: Biblical and Practical Perspective on Calvinism eds. T. R. Schreiner and B. A. Ware (Baker, 1995), pp. 183-201; and John Piper, Proposed Amendment Concerning the Foreknowledge of God and the Baptist General Conference (7/19/99) for some of the material used in the body of these notes.
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Through daily readings, Luther’s straightforward approach challenges you to a more thoughtful faith. Read one brief section a day or explore themes using the subject index in the back of the book. Faith Alone will deepen your understanding of Scripture and help you more fully appreciate the mystery of faith.
“Some people value good works so much that they overlook faith in Christ. Faith should be first. It is faith—without good works and prior to good works—that takes us to heaven. We come to God through faith alone.” —Martin Luther