Let this be a cardinal rule in theology: We can only know God truly through Jesus Christ. This point is made clear near the beginning of John’s Gospel, when he wrote, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18). In considering the Calvinist and Arminian debate over the sovereignty of God in salvation, I am convinced that much of our misunderstanding stems from viewing this debate apart from the Incarnation, which is the cornerstone to true theology. In unwitting pride, we make wrong inferences, never realizing how much our footsteps are straying off the path and trampling down the beautiful mysteries of God. Personally, I did not realize this until God humbled me and then used Martin Luther to point me back to Christ.
In the Bondage of the Will, Luther explained the difference between the hidden God and the revealed God–a difference that I now understand in the following way. With the hidden God, we have no direct contact. He is too infinite for our finite minds to know. In John’s language, “No man hath seen God” (John 1:18a). However, we do have mediated knowledge of this mysterious God through the Son, who became human, and has now “declared him” (John 1:18b). In a sense, the infinite God has been translated into real human terms through the Only-Begotten, who is both fully divine and fully human. When we see Jesus, we see God the Father in human terms (cf. John 14:9). The revealed God has now explained the hidden God. We may not understand how this happened, but we can understand the fact that it happened. “The Word became flesh” is a very clear statement (John 1:14).
Whenever this fact of the Incarnation is ignored, theology turns into philosophy. For example, it is tempting to explain the sovereignty of God in salvation by directly looking at the eternal decrees of God. Since God chose some sinners to salvation “from the beginning” (2 Thessalonians 2:13), that is, “before the foundation of the world” and “before the world began” (Ephesians 1:4; 2 Timothy 1:9), it is tempting to think that God has no sincere desire to save each sinner who hears the Gospel. We may think, What if that sinner is not one of the elect? If God has not chosen him, then does God really want him to be saved? Please note: These questions view God monolithically, as if there were no Trinity, and no need for the knowledge of God the Father to be mediated through God the Son. In other words, this “God” is the god of philosophy, and not the God of the Bible.
How do I really know God’s heart for a sinner? Only through Christ. Looking at God the Father directly, and not through Christ, turns the loving doctrine of predestination into cold fatalism. Personally, I am a firm believer in both predestination and unconditional election; but I do not want to view these doctrines independently of Christ. Admittedly, the logical bent in me at times fights against this mystery, and I am tempted to fall into the trap described above, but it is the witness of the Gospels to the living, breathing, interacting Christ that brings me back. Let me close by giving you one instance that fascinates me.
When Jesus confronted the rich young ruler, He used the Law to counteract the man’s pride (see Mark 10:17-27). Why Jesus did not use the Gospel is a sermon for another day; for our purposes here, please note that Jesus is said to have “loved” this blind legalist (10:21). The word “loved” here is the verb form of agape, the strong word for Christian love in the New Testament. Was the rich, young ruler elect? Probably not. Based on both his sad reaction and Jesus’ subsequent comments, it is doubtful that the man ever turned to Christ in repentance and faith. Regardless of what happened to him, the text does not say, and that is the point. Jesus loved a sinner, whom Jesus invited to follow Him. Jesus was sincere in His invitation. This is a translation of God to me in human terms. Therefore, any view of the sovereignty of God in salvation that denies the sincerity of God’s heart in the Gospel invitation is heretical, being the wrong inference from a philosophical attempt to know the hidden God directly.
Jesus sincerely desires sinners to be saved. When the Gospel is given, the offer is sincere. God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that he repent and live (Ezekiel 18:23, 32). Jesus is both desirous and able to save him (cf. Matthew 8:2-3). This fact does not mean that God is not sovereign, or that election is not real. Jesus also spoke of “the elect” and how for those blessed of the Father, the kingdom had been “prepared…from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 24:22, 24, 31; 25:34). Truly, without the Father’s blessing, it is impossible to know the Son as God (Matthew 16:17; 11:25-27). Conversely, we would not know the Father except through the Son (Matthew 11:27). Come to Jesus Christ, and find out who God really is. This is true theology. This is the Gospel.