"O mother, here I think
That I shall have to sink,
There ain't a single drink
The water-bottle in."
From “The Pannikin Poet” ~ Banjo Patterson
Jemimah stared at Michael as he wiped his hands on the rag, stunned by what he had shown her. It was one thing for her to be able to parrot the Bible verses that everyone was sinful and under God’s condemnation – but it was another thing entirely to see it so clearly demonstrated. That made it make sense to her, that people could seem good and do so much ‘good’ things for other people, yet still be completely sinful in God’s sight. Even their best actions would be contaminated.
"Yes,” she said eventually. “I know that from God’s point of view we do all deserve hell . . . but if we can’t be saved from it unless God does it - then it just seems unfair if he would rescue some people and not everyone. That’s what Mum said was so wrong about the things you had told me about God, not us, being the only one who can change our hearts.”
She paused for a moment to remember exactly what her mother has said. “She told me there was no way she could accept that some people are special and "chosen" and everyone else was destined for hell. She said that didn’t sound anything like the God of the Bible and if God was really like that she wouldn't want anything to do with him."
Michael looked at her thoughtfully. “Yet it is a matter of picking our starting point, isn't it? Do we, as created beings – with even our reasoning tainted by sin and self absorption - judge our Creator according to what appears right or just to us or do we start with what God has clearly revealed about himself in the Bible? We must find out the truth from the Word and conform our thinking to that - and not the other way around."
He picked up a torch and held it out to Jemimah. "Would you mind holding this for me while I put this pump back in? If you just crouch down beside the wheel you should be able to shine it under where I need it."
Michael swung himself back under the ute, and Jemimah climbed down beside him, tucking her full skirt around her ankles as she knelt on the ground. "How's that?"
He stretched out a long, tanned arm and moved the torch slightly. "There, that's perfect. Thank you. Sorry about interrupting, we were talking about people finding the idea that of God's sovereignty in salvation - that he chooses who he will enable to come to him - offensive.” There was a pause while Michael shuffled himself further underneath the vehicle.
“And yet you’ve starting seeing it all through the Bible yourself, haven’t you,” he went on, “that again and again God shows himself as a God who does choose. Out of all the people on earth, he chose Abraham to be the father of a special nation, out of the twins Jacob and Esau, before the boys were even born he chose to set his love on the younger twin Jacob, and to make him the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. And he chose to set apart that one nation of people who descended from Jacob - even though they were as sinful and rebellious as the rest of humanity - to reveal himself to them as their God, while the other nations perished in their sins."
Jemimah leaned her shoulder against the side of the vehicle. “I know that’s what the Bible says – and I should feel that whatever God does must be right – but it still seems unfair that God would choose some and not others."
She would never have admitted her doubts to anyone else, but somehow it felt okay to be honest with Michael. “That’s why when I asked my pastor about it he was adamant that God doesn’t ‘elect’ some people and not others, but just knows ahead of time which ones will choose to follow him of their own free will, and so he calls them his people.”
“But while smoothing the hard edges off the Bible’s teaching makes it more comfortable for us, that’s not dealing with what it clearly teaches. You know when the Apostle Paul takes on this whole subject in the book of Romans he is under no illusions that it is a hard teaching to accept. In chapter nine , right after he gives the example of God loving Jacob and hating his twin brother Esau – before they had done either good or evil – he comes straight to the point: 'Is God unjust?’ and goes on to quote God’s very words to Moses: 'I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ And then if that wasn’t clear enough, Paul puts it even more bluntly:
‘So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.’
And God knew we would find it hard to swallow – so, inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul goes right on to state the objection we would inevitably make:
’Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’
And do you know what answer he gives to all that?” Michael asked.
“Yes,” Jemimah said. That difficult passage had become familiar to her over the last couple of weeks. “He basically says we have no right to ask. That who are we, mere men, to answer back to God? That God is the potter and we are just the clay, and he has every right to make us for whatever use he chooses.”
She sighed, letting her head rest on the top edge of the tyre. “That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? That God truly can do what ever he wants. Our job is to accept it."
The torch tugged in her hands as Michael reached out and pointed it back in the right direction.
"You mustn't forget the big picture though, Jemimah. These are all important details about God's nature and plan of salvation - but they fit into place with the rest of what the Scriptures reveal about God. He is above all, good. A loving God, merciful and gracious. A God who loves the world so much that he sent his Son to do to provide a way of salvation. He shows his love to all, invites all to come to him and when all choose wickedness and not righteousness, he yet chooses some."
“But that’s the part I don’t think I could ever feel was fair,” Jemimah persisted. “Even accepting that God can do whatever he wants, how can it be fair that those he doesn’t pick go to hell?”
“Didn’t we just agree that hell is what we all deserve for our sin? That it is fair? It was the fair bargain that God made with Adam and Eve - obey and all this is yours, disobey and you will die. And each one of us is born with the inherited sinfulness of our first parents, and the moment we’re able to we consciously choose to do what is wrong, again and again. Never mind what God might do for anyone else, in the light of God’s purity and justice, we can only agree that hell is the fair reward for our sins. That God would save any of us - undeserving, ungrateful wretches that we are – isn’t fair. It is an incredible act of grace, especially considering what it cost him.”
Jemimah closed her eyes tightly as she tried to think. She could see both truths but trying to make them fit together seemed impossible.
“Jemimah - there is no-one knocking on heaven's gate begging for forgiveness that is being turned away,” Michael continued, his tone gentle as though he understood her mental – or was it spiritual – struggle. “God makes his generous offer of forgiveness and salvation to all who will repent of their sins and come to him. Those who aren’t saved don’t want to be saved – God has made his offer and they have scorned it and rejected it.
This is one of the huge dangers in the easy-believism gospel of ‘asking Jesus into to your heart’ or simply making a decision that you will call Christ your personal Lord and Saviour. Most people would be happy to make a ‘choice’ like that if it gave them a free ticket out of hell and there are many who’ll accept a false gospel, a feel-good religion of their own choosing, but want nothing of true salvation because they love their sin.
The people who don’t respond to the gospel don’t want to give up their pet sins and indulgences. They don’t fly to Christ to receive his gift of life because they don’t want to give up their independence to be their own god and live according to their own standards. They don’t want to give up their dreams and life-goals and everything else they love for the sake of spending the rest of their lives serving God. Or like the Pharisees, they aren’t prepared to give up their own self-righteousness and accept God’s jugdgement that they aren’t good enough as they are. They won’t ‘turn and be saved’ because they don’t want to turn from their sins. God’s way doesn’t appeal to them.”
Jemimah’s breath caught as Michael’s warm hand touched her own, gently guiding the torch back into position as he spoke.
“When people reject the God who makes himself known through the awesomeness of his universe and the moral law he has written on our hearts, and God leaves them in their sins, he is giving them exactly what they choose. That God also gives to some - a people he has chosen according to his own purposes - an entirely unmerited salvation, it is not unfair. It is grace . Unfair is when we don't get what we deserve. Grace is when we are given what we don't deserve."
Unfair is when we don't get what we deserve. Grace is when we are given what we don't deserve, Jemimah repeated softly to herself. It would be fair for us all to go to hell . . . that's what our sins deserve. Anything other than that is grace.
Michael scooted out from under the engine. "Is that making any more sense to you now?"
"Yes. Yes, it is." Jemimah answered, not realising until he defensively raised one hand to shield his eyes that she was shining the torch directly into his face. She hurriedly switched it off. "But how could you possibly feel arrogant about being saved when you see how undeserved it is?”
"Hmm?" Michael raised an eyebrow as he stood and dusted himself off. "Who feels arrogant about obtaining salvation?"
Jemimah blushed, realising how candidly she’d spoken. "Oh. That was something my pastor said when I asked him about us being unable to come to God unless he first gives us new birth. He said the kind of questions I was asking about sounded like . . ." she tried to unscramble the unfamiliar terms in her mind. "Calvinism. He felt that the idea of someone thinking that they were somehow more special than everyone else and ‘chosen’ and others weren't seemed the opposite of humble Christianity. But you don't believe, that - do you?"
Michael leaned back against the ute and smiled patiently. "It depends - if you're asking whether I would be called a Calvinist - yes, I would, and gladly so - but as to whether believing we have been elected by God could give me any sense of superiority, you've seen for yourself that the Scriptures show the absolute opposite. How could a believer be anything but humbled to know that God plucked him from the rubbish heap not because of anything he had done, but purely according to God’s own purposes? How he could feel anything but compassion and a desire to reach out to those who are still lost in their sins when he knows he was just as blind and would still be lost if God hadn’t rescued him? If there is an arrogant position surely it would be that of a person who looked on those who have not been saved - and believes that what separates himself from them was that he had made a far better choice in making a choice for Jesus."
"But what you've been telling me about are the teachings of Calvinism?"
"Yes." Michael began collecting up the tools, wiping each of them with a rag before returning them to the toolbox as though he had all the time in the world. "Although what is generally referred to as Calvinism is nothing more - or less - than what the Bible itself teaches about God’s sovereignty in salvation. These doctrines are sometimes called the Doctrines of Grace in reference to salvation being only and entirely of God’s grace, or categorised as Reformed teachings, because of their roots in the Protestant Reformation. Of course though, what I or any other Reformed believer holds to as Biblical doctrine goes far wider than the area of soteriology - the teachings about salvation – just as it was only one of the areas addressed in John Calvin’s writings.”
He looked up from his task and smiled. “People sometimes talk about ‘The Five Points of Calvinism’ as though it was a system of theology created by John Calvin. It wasn’t – although Calvin clearly taught about it in the 16th century. As far back as the 5th century AD the truth that we are lost in our sins and that salvation is the work of God alone was being defended by the early church leaders, like Augustine, right through to those most influential in the Protestant Reformation like Martin Luther. In fact, the specific doctrines that have become known as the ‘Five Points of Calvinism’ were actually put together like that about two generations after John Calvin. That was done by a Synod made up of European church leaders in response to a disagreement raised against the protestant church’s generally held belief in God’s total sovereignty in salvation.”
"Okay. I remember reading something like that about why the historic Confessions of Faith were written," Jemimah said. "The elders of the churches wrote them when their denominations were under attack, and they wanted to set out clearly exactly what they were teaching and that they were only teaching what the Bible said."
Michael nodded. “Exactly. In the early sixteen-hundreds, followers of a Dutch theologian called James Arminius published a document known as the Remonstrance, arguing five points of theology as taught by Arminius that disagreed with the widely held principles of monergism. The Synod held in the Dutch town of Dort carefully considered – and rejected – those five points of Arminian teaching, and drew from the work of Calvin to summarise the Biblical teaching as it related to those five specific areas. Nowadays, people often use the acrostic TULIP as a memory aid to that theology as it was contended for in Holland - with each letter representing one of the five points of Calvinism. You and I’ve covered most of them in already in our discussions.”
He’d finished wiping all his tools, but made no move to walk away. “T stands for Total Depravity, U for Unconditional Election - that God didn't choose us because we met some ‘condition’ of his, or that there was some goodness or action on our part that made him pick us over others, the L of TULIP is for Limited or Particular Atonement - that the death of Christ paid specifically for the sins of every one his chosen people only, not for the whole world in general--"
Jemimah uttered an involuntary "But--" as his words brought to mind something else that her pastor had said. She experienced again the gut churning emotions of that unexpectedly awkward conversation.
"But?" Michael prompted.
"But does that mean Calvinists do teach Jesus didn't die for all men, when the Bible clearly says that he died for all?"
"And what do you think?"
"Well, my Pastor reminded me of lots of verses that say about salvation coming to all men . . . ."
"That all should be saved. All?" Michael repeated pointedly. "Judas Iscariot? The High Priest who ordered Christ to be crucified? Pharaoh in Egypt with his heart hardened against God when Moses sought to lead his people out of Egypt? What about the verses which warn about those who will be punished in hell – in Revelation it says that the portion of the faithless and immoral, the idolaters and all liars will be in the lake of fire and sulphur. And Jesus made it clear that when he returns he is going to separate people into two groups, one for eternal life and the other for eternal punishment. "
Jemimah let out a slow breath. "I guess it can't mean absolutely all then – and there is that parable about the rich man who went to eternal torment while the poor man who'd lain at his gate went to paradise. But what does it mean by all, then?"
"For a start we could see what ‘all’, doesn’t mean by spending a few hours going over every instance of "all" in the New Testament which doesn't mean every single individual but a great number of people - in fact, you could do that yourself with a concordance. Look up the verses which talk about ‘Herod and all Jerusalem being troubled’ after the visit of the wise men looking for the newborn King, . Well, not all were troubled! We know there were some like Simeon and Anna who rejoiced greatly in the news of the Saviour’s birth. Or you can read of all Judea and Jerusalem going to John to be baptised but that didn’t mean every individual person. Otherwise, who were the people whom Jesus baptised, or the Apostles after the ascension of Jesus – if all people in Judea and Jerusalem had already been baptised? Not to mention the people of Jerusalem who were never willing – whom Jesus longed to gather safely to him, but they were not willing. You see, Christ came to die for all the world – for all peoples in all times – yet not for every individual sinner.”
He glanced at the fading sky and then at his watch.
"We were talking earlier about Israel being a chosen nation - salvation was given first to them. But in Jesus, salvation came to ALL - just as it was prophesied that through Christ all nations would be blessed - it was part of God's plan that the rejection of Jesus by the nation of Israel would lead to the gospel being offered then to the Gentiles - the non-Jewish people. Through Christ, salvation came to ALL men - not just the Jews - but ALL the world.
With the coming of Christ was the coming of the new covenant, no longer a covenant only with those who were Jews or who became Jews, but with ALL who would believe."
Jemimah nodded. She knew Christ’s instructions were for the gospel to be taken to all nations , but she had never made the connection before with salvation coming to all men through him.
“Understanding why Christ had to die helps us understand for whom he died - and it all comes back to God’s holiness and our sinfulness,” Michael continued. “Because God is just he can’t just pretend our sins don’t exist, they have to be punished. And the whole basis of a believer's hope of salvation is that the punishment owing to them personally has been fully paid by Jesus on their behalf. They will not be cast into hell as they deserve because someone has already been punished for their crimes. On their court fine 'Paid In Full' has been written in Jesus’ blood.”
It felt like a light had broken in on Jemimah from an entirely different direction than she'd expected and she blinked as she took it in. "That is incredible, isn't it?"
"Yes - it certainly is. But if Christ's death had paid for everyone’s sins, then there would be no punishment outstanding for those who remain in wilful rebellion against him – but the Bible clearly says there is. Either our sin is paid for by Christ and that payment applied to us saves us and produces faith in us - or our sin remains on our own heads as an outstanding, unpaid debt. In John 3:36 it says "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. "
He paused as though he was trying to gauge Jemimah’s reaction. "Is that enough to go on with Limited Atonement for the moment?" he asked. "I can go into it again with you later, and help you find the places in the Bible which make it clear, but I think I'd better just mention the last two points quickly and then get the casserole in the oven so it’s ready when Angie comes home."
'Yes, I did follow all that, I think." Jemimah answered. "But how about I go inside and put the casserole on now - you can keep working here and tell me the last two points when I come back. It's - it's . . . I don't want you to stop talking about it."
"Thank you," he said simply and Jemimah grew hot under the intensity of his gaze. He looked exhilarated, she thought, like he had after getting that awkward part out of the engine.
She lowered her face, giving her attention to brushing the dust and dry grass from the dark material of her skirt. She felt her heart would burst from what she saw in his eyes – but the sensible part of her acknowledged that his expression probably reflected nothing more than his deep emotional connection to God and his Word. Michael, she was learning, was a man who didn't just talk about religion - it seemed God was his very lifeblood.
When she looked up, Michael had already turned back to the toolbox, and was humming the tune of a hymn to himself. I should be glad that he's far more interested in the theology than in me, Jemimah told herself as she ran lightly across the lawn to the house. After all, hadn't Angie told her months ago that Michael wanted to devote himself to the work of the Lord rather than be distracted by a girlfriend or wife?
It felt almost wrong to ask God to turn Michael's thoughts and heart to something else . . . yet what could she do about this longing for Michael to care for her - to love her - she finally admitted, as she had loved him almost from the first moment she'd met him.
Distracted by the pounding of her heart in response to her own outrageous hope, Jemimah forgot to catch the screen door as she ran inside the house. It slammed behind her when she was already halfway across the kitchen.
The casserole was on the top shelf of the fridge, and she lifted it out and carried it over to the under-bench oven. She opened the oven door, but just as she crouched down to place the heavy dish into the oven Pastor Turnbull's voice boomed from the other side of the kitchen bench.
"Isn't the old girl co-operating with you yet, Mikey?"
Jemimah startled, and the pyrex dish clattered against the open oven door. It was only by the tips of her fingers that she kept from dropping it completely.
"Jemimah!" Pastor Turnbull’s voice echoed her own surprise. "I heard the door and assumed it was Michael. I thought he must have given up on the ute and come inside."
Jemimah slid the casserole safely inside the oven and shut the door, then turned and looked up wordlessly at Pastor Turnbull from where she was still half crouched on the floor. She pressed her hands to her chest and when she could speak again, blew out a deep breath and said, "You nearly scared me to death!"
"I'm sorry, lassie," he patted her shoulder heartily on his way past her to the kettle, "I didn't even know you were here. When Angie saw me on her way out to the Winslow’s I assumed you were going with her."
"No, I stayed to . . . to give Michael a hand with the engine."
"You did, did you?" Pastor Turnbull's face broke into an expression of amusement. "No wonder it's taking him so long then."
Jemimah could feel herself blushing to the roots of her hair. After what she'd been thinking about Michael when Pastor Turnbull came into the kitchen she was sure her feelings for his son must be written clearly across her face, even before she’d made such a dumb excuse.
"I'm a very good torch holder," she added lamely, wishing she could dissolve into the floor as he continued to smile indulgently. Just then the roar of an engine carried through the open kitchen window.
"See? I told you I was a good helper."
Pastor Turnbull rumbled with laughter. "Yes, I see. Just what he needs."
He picked up the kettle, weighing the water in it in his hand and turned back to Jemimah. "Take the boy a cuppa if you're heading back across there - he'd appreciate that."
Jemimah nodded, and pulled down one of the cups she'd seen Michael use and set it on the bar. While Pastor Turnbull rummaged in the pantry, Jemimah went to the fridge for the milk, leaning in and letting the cool air soothe her burning face.
If Pastor Turnbull suspected . . . if he had even some suspicion about her feelings toward Michael . . . well, he hadn't exactly given her the cold shoulder. Surely if he thought it was wrong for her to dare to dream in his son’s direction he’d have given her some kind of hint – was she being fanciful to imagine he was encouraging her?
Maybe it was okay to pray over it after all - it wasn't like she was telling God what to do, just asking, please - please - if it might be His will . . . .
"Milk's in the door, Jemimah."
Jemimah jumped guiltily and kept her eyes carefully lowered while she made Michael's cuppa beside Pastor Turnbull.
Like Michael, that man saw too much.
© R. L. Brown 2008