Saturday, August 20, 2016

Recognizing Christ in the Gospel according to John

Sometimes people will appeal to the Gospel according to John in defense of Reformed understandings of the doctrines of predestination and election. When Jesus says, for example, that the Pharisees do not believe in him because they are not his sheep (John 10), these persons suppose that there is a fundamental distinction between classes of persons: there are Jesus' sheep, who will believe in him and who are chosen for salvation; and there are those who are not his sheep, who neither can believe nor will ever believe in him. And the distinction between sheep and non-sheep, furthermore, is taken to be established antecedently by the inscrutable choice of God: he alone has decided who is going to be a sheep and who will not.

This is the wrong way to read things, however, because there also exists in the Gospel according to John a recognition that whether a person recognizes Christ for who he is depends in part on the quality of life he lived prior to the advent of Christ. Those who sought after God with a pure heart, who were eager to know him, and who dedicated themselves to virtue and righteousness in obedience to his commandments -- these persons will recognize Christ for the Son of God, and will cling to him happily. On the other hand, sinners whose lives are characterized by distrust of God and disobedience to his commandments will reject Christ, because he condemns them. This is precisely what the following passage teaches in John 3:
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God (vv. 19-21).
Notice what the Gospel says: those who do what is true come to the light, which is clearly Christ. If a person lives in the truth, then she will come to Christ; she will see in Christ that truth which she has been seeking after and obeying without realizing it. In this way, there is an inevitably synergistic and moral element to the process of salvation, not to mention the epistemological aspect of what it takes to recognize Christ as the Son of God. Such a recognition is something accomplished by God's help, but also through the cooperation and individual contribution of the person who comes to believe.

This does not mean that sinners cannot come to faith in Christ, which is self-evidently absurd. Rather, we cannot interpret "doing what is true" too strictly. If a person recognizes her sinfulness and comes to cooperate with that inner prompting which impels her in the direction of Christ, then she does what is true. Repenting of our sins and recognizing our guilt and spiritual poverty before God is doing what is true, as much as living a life of virtue and righteousness. What I reject, however, is a kind of determinism and monergism in the process of salvation which is inevitably accompanied by some Calvinist-Augustinian understanding of predestination and election. This takes salvation and personal destiny entirely outside of the realm of human freedom, except insofar as our damnation is our own fault -- and even there, we may have some doubts...

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