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Ask the Pastor: Election and Problem Verses

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Originally posted July 21, 2021

 ASK THE PASTOR BY DAN KIEHL, Senior Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

      Question: “There are some verses in Scripture that seem to contradict the idea that God chooses only the elect to be saved – for instance, 1 Timothy 2:3-6, John 3:16, and 2 Peter 3:9. How are we to understand these “Arminian”-sounding verses?

     1 TIMOTHY 2:3-6“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.”

     There are two potential problems with these verses: first, Paul says that God "desires all people to be saved;" and later, he says that Jesus Christ "gave Himself as a ransom for all." Taken out of context, these statements seem to contradict what the Bible says elsewhere - that God chose some people, not everyone, to be saved, and that Christ died for those whom God chose, not for everyone.

     However, if you look at these statements in the context of what Paul says just before them (in verses 1 and 2), it takes care of the apparent problem. In verse 1 Paul says, "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people..."It's obvious that "all people" in verse 1 must mean the same as it does in verse 4. In verse 1 "all people" cannot mean every single person in the world - who of us could attempt to offer four different kinds of prayers (supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings) for all 5 billion people who are currently alive! Paul goes on to mention Kings and people in positions of high authority, because he recognizes that we tend to neglect praying for people that influence our lives from a distance. It's obvious that, in context, "all people" means the same thing in both verse 1 and verse 4, namely, "all kinds of people" - rich, poor, black, white, powerful, powerless, etc.

     This is related to one of the most important "mysteries" that God revealed in the New Covenant in Christ; that the people of God would no longer be ethnically and geographically limited primarily to Israel. The inclusion of the Gentiles and the “universalization” of the church was a new and exciting message that Paul was called by God to announce to the world. Therefore, he often emphasizes that the Gospel and the Kingdom are for all people, people from all nations, tribes, tongues, races, and social classes, no longer primarily for the Jews. Christ is the Savior for all men without distinction, not all men without exception.

     JOHN 3:16“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  

     It’s ironic that this verse is seen as contradicting Reformed theology, because I see the third chapter of John as one of the clearest presentations of the Reformed view of God's sovereignty over the process of salvation. The Bible does teach that God will save anyone who will come to Him by faith in Jesus Christ. However, the Bible also teaches that, in our fallen state, we are hostile to God and would never even want to come to Him unless He first changed our hearts (Romans 3). That change is what Christ is referring to in John 3:3-5, when He says, "...unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God...unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God." He makes it clear that unless the Holy Spirit gives you a new, spiritual birth you will not see, understand, or desire to enter God's kingdom. In verse 8, Jesus refers to the doctrine of God's election, "The wind blows where it wishes...So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." In other words, no one controls God's Spirit; He regenerates all whom God has chosen. Paul says essentially the same thing in Romans 9:15-16: "For [God] says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.' So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy."

     So, what is the meaning of "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish...?” The issue here is similar to the question of what "all men" means in 1 Timothy 2. Here the problematic word is "world." If you do a concordance or word study on how the word "world" is used in Scripture, you find that it has at least four different meanings: 1) the created world: land, sea, sky, and creatures 2) the world that is under Satan's dominion, that is in opposition to Christ and the church 3) all the people in the world and 4) all the different nations and types of people in the world - not only the Jews, but the Gentiles also. 

     In the immediate context, "the world" corresponds to "whoever believes in Him," and in verse 17 Jesus says that God sent His Son "that the world might be saved through Him."

     Since Scripture is clear that everyone in the world will not be saved, the word "world" in these must mean all the elect from all nations, races, and social classes. Again, "whoever believes in Him" will not be lost, but we know from the rest of the chapter (and the rest of Scripture) that only those whom God chooses and regenerates by His Holy Spirit will have the ability to see and believe in Christ, and to enter God's Kingdom.

     2 PETER 3:9“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.”

     This verse says that God is delaying the return of Christ and the Day of Judgment because He is patient and is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." Again, the key issue is who do the words "any" and "all" refer to? The context of these verses answers the question very clearly. The whole sentence makes perfect sense if the specified audience ("you") corresponds to the words to the words "any" and "all": "The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise...but is patient towards you, not wishing that any [of you] should perish, but that all [of you] should reach repentance." So, again, the words "any" and "all" refer to the elect, not every single person on the earth.

     So, the doctrine of election affirms that everyone who turns from their sins and believes in Jesus Christ will be saved; however, sinners in their fallen state do not have the ability to repent and believe unless God takes away their heart of stone and gives them a heart that grieves over its sin, desires to come to God, and believes in the promises of Christ (Ezekiel 11:17-20). That's why God must choose us before we choose Him - a choice that He made, Scripture says, before the foundation of the world. Salvation is God's work, from beginning to end.

Posted by Rev. Dan Kiehl with

The Liturgy of Mickey Mouse

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 BY BENJAMIN R. LEE, Associate Pastor of Oakwood Presbyterian  

     Earlier this year Maggie and I took our boys down to Disney World’s Magic Kingdom for a couple of days in February. And I have to tell you, it was awesome! It’s hard to describe the joy that comes to a parent when your kid’s eyes light up as you first drive beneath the Disney arch at the entrance to the complex and see Cinderella’s Castle for the first time. We made some great memories on Goofy’s Barnstormer and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I’ll never forget when our oldest son, Graeme, bowed when he met Cinderella, or when Haddon got to be the pilot of the Millennium Falcon on Smuggler’s Run, or when Teddy met his hero, Buzz Lightyear. At the end of those two days, the magic had worked and we were tired (and broke), but filled with happiness.

     I’ve been to Disney World a few times now over the years, and each time I leave wanting to go back. But the more I go to Disney World one thing has become glaringly obvious to me. It’s something that leaves me with uncomfortable misgivings that are hard to shake. The more I’ve been to Disney, the more I’ve come to realize that Disney World is inherently religious. If you look at it closely everything about Disney, from the park’s design down even to the rides, is religious in nature. When you walk through Disney’s gate onto Main Street USA you are entering into a liturgy purposefully designed to catechize you into the gospel according to Disney. I’ve dubbed it The Liturgy of Mickey Mouse. Let me explain.

     Disney’s gospel is not really hard to spot. In fact, I bet if you’ve seen a Disney movie or two you probably already know what it is, even if you’ve never heard it called a “gospel” before. But a gospel it is. You hear it right away in the park’s motto. Disney is “the happiest place on earth.” Disney understands that the world is a dark and broken place filled with suffering and evil, and it offers a vision of the good life meant to combat the world’s (and our) brokenness: a life filled with happiness. Disney World is a Mecca where weary pilgrims will be instructed in the ways of true happiness. As pilgrims participate in Disney’s liturgy they hear the good news that, as their 50th Anniversary theme song states, “Doesn’t matter where you are / ‘cos the spark is in your heart / wherever you go you can have it / ‘cos you are the magic…Just believe it and close your eyes.” “Hear the words of Walt Disney and believe,” their heralds proclaim. “The answer to evil and suffering is inside of you. You are the magic that will give your life meaning and happiness.”

     The religious character of Disney World is what philosopher James KA Smith calls a “cultural liturgy.” Cultural liturgies are the rituals and practices we participate in that form something in us, and Disney has perfected this liturgical art.

     Consider the many rituals and practices of Disney World. As pilgrims approach the sanctuary, I mean park, they make an offering that purchases their entrance and right to worship. Then they journey down Main Street past the primary alter, Cinderella’s Castle, where they prepare their hearts for the day’s activities. It’s Disney’s holy of holies wherein only the select few may enter. The average worshipper is kept well back from the inner sanctum of that sacred space. From there the faithful proceed to various auxiliary alters, each attended by acolytes and altar servers, where they venerate the icons, not of gods (the participant is god at Disney). Here they venerate Disney’s Saints such as Peter Pan and Mickey Mouse from whom they may learn the habits of happiness: let your heart guide the way, follow your dreams, and so on. Throughout the day these icons pass by in processional parades singing the songs of the faithful. After venerating an icon a pilgrim may enjoy a ride like “It’s A Small World” which gives them a vision of what a world filled with happy people would be like. Remember that final room in the Small World ride where everyone is dressed in white and no longer living in distinct communities, but are together as one people? It’s the Disney vision of a new heaven and earth. Pilgrims may opt to participate in one of Disney’s many sacraments, like a stop in at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique where catechumen dress in the garb of their most revered icons. Finally, at the end of the day worshippers gather together back at the Castle for a corporate service filled with fireworks and lights shows where the gospel according to Disney is proclaimed as the congregation sings with one voice: “Let your heart guide the way / And all your dreams will follow / Doesn’t matter where you are / ‘Cos the spark is in your heart.” Worshippers are then sent out of Magic Kingdom back to their homes to spread the gospel according to Disney World in Orlando and to the ends of the earth.

     Yes indeed. Disney World is an inherently religious place with a liturgy designed to catechize us into its gospel. It’s not just Magic Kingdom. It is another kind of kingdom, a competing kingdom: the kingdom of the god of self and Mickey Mouse, its messiah. Mickey isn’t just the conductor of Mickey’s PhilharMagic. He is the prophet, priest, and king of Disney’s gospel.

     You may wonder why I decided to write this blog. Depending on the tone you caught as you read those paragraphs you may have interpreted them as a curmudgeonly take on a theme park, or maybe as a joke. I can assure you they are neither. I decided during our Disney trip that I wanted to write about this not to come down on Disney, but to point out how the world is constantly trying to form us. It’s constantly pointing us toward some vision of the good life it believes we ought to pursue. And Disney’s vision is powerful. They have, perhaps better than any other organization in the world, captured the spirit of the age. The human heart loves to believe it is the source of its happiness and the answer to its problems.

     The news coming out of Disney World in recent weeks, however, made me think more deeply about the formative power of Disney’s liturgy. Businesses like Disney have made no secret in recent years of their support for the LGBT agenda, but the passage of Florida’s “Parental Rights in Education” bill led to a promise from Disney both to push for the bill’s repeal, and to fast track the LBGT agenda in its children’s programming.

     Here’s why this matters: the logic of Disney’s gospel (the magic is in you) inevitably leads to the rejection of Biblical ethics. If a child believes the answer to her problems is inside of herself, then she will pursue what is inside of her, whether it’s fulfilling a disordered sexual desire, or changing her name and taking cross-sex hormones in an attempt to find happiness as a boy. Imagine then the significance of the Disney executive who recently pledged to incorporate more LBGT characters in movies. This is ultimately what Disney wants to catechize us, and specifically our children, into. They are trying to make disciples, just not Christian ones.

     How then should we interact with Disney? Just as happened many years ago, I’ve heard of Christians who’ve vowed to cancel their Disney+ subscriptions and never to go to Disney World again. That is a legitimate option. Who knows? If Disney’s embrace of this false gospel becomes so obvious to the point that my kids can’t watch a show or be in Disney World without being force-fed that gospel, maybe that’s where I’ll land. But I think a more measured response is also appropriate. I hope to take my kids to Disney World again someday, and I’m sure we will watch new Disney movies. But I’m doing it with my eyes wide open. If we are going to go to Disney or participate in any cultural liturgy, we must understand what is happening. You cannot go to Disney under the illusion that Disney just wants you to relive 1900s Americana when you walk down Main Street USA. It’s not a spiritually or morally neutral place. We are not wrestling against flesh and blood here. They are trying to preach to you, and if you are not careful to observe what is happening, you, and maybe your children, will be discipled right into the spirit of the age.

     If you are going to do what I’ll probably do in a few years and go pretend to be a Jedi on The Rise of the Resistance, then you need to be ready to point out those cultural liturgies and other gospels. Then you need to show why Jesus is better. Learn to dissect the messages contained in Frozen and Elena of Avalor and give your kids (and your own heart) a gospel that far surpasses what Disney has to offer. It’s a gospel that points us not inside, but out to the person and work of Jesus who by his life, death, and resurrection has won the battle over evil, suffering, and even sin and death. Through him all those who believe will live forever in perfect peace, not in “the happiest place on earth,” but in the happiest earth – a new heaven and earth completely remade in perfection and glory.

     When it comes down to it, it’s not going to be merely avoiding Disney or anything else that keeps you and your kids from embracing the spirit of the age. It can only be Jesus. What we need more than to avoid secularism is to catechize our own children into the gospel of Jesus. We need to participate in our own liturgy of corporate worship wherein we receive God’s ordinary means of grace (the Word, prayer, and sacraments) that work to form Christ in us, and us in Him. Then and only then can we find something outside of this world to be the Mecca of true happiness: that place where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.

Posted by Rev. Ben Lee with

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