Easy Chairs & Hard Words – Part 4

by Douglas Wilson

We join a conservation in progress; it is between a young theological questioner who grew up in a typical Evangelical church, and an older pastor from a historical theological tradition.  


Pastor Spenser shifted easily in his seat while I carefully thought over my next question. “Some of my friends at my church have figured out that I have been coming to see you,” I said.  

Pastor Spenser nodded, and waited.  

“Naturally,” I said, “they are somewhat concerned.”  

“Naturally. About what?”  

“Well, they say that Christians who believe in the exhaustive sovereignty of God are setting themselves up.”  


“For the temptation which says that because God controls everything, then the way I live doesn’t really matter.”  

“I see. In other words, if I am elect, then my sins won’t damn me, and if I am not, then all the good works in the world won’t save me. Is that it?”  

“Yes. That is exactly it. If the whole thing was settled before the world began, then why bother? My friends know that there are true Christians who believe this, but they think that, because of this theology, these Christians will tend to become careless about how they live.”  

“Why should we take responsibility for our actions after we have embraced a theology which cuts the nerve of personal responsibility?”  

“Right. If God controls everything, then what room is there for personal holiness?”  

Pastor Spenser thought for a moment. “The problem is not with your friends’ concern for personal holiness. That is admirable. All Christians should set their faces against carnal living on the part of professing Christians. But it does no good to oppose carnal living with carnal reasoning.”  

“What do you mean?”  

“When someone is whooping it up down at the bars, or sleeping with their girlfriend, why do we say it is sin?”  

“Is this a trick question?”  

Pastor Spenser grinned. “You might say that. Why do we call such things sin?”  

“Because the Bible does.”  

“Exactly. So this carnal living we have been talking about is a lifestyle that is not in submission to the clear teaching of the Word of God.”  

“Well, sure. But I still don’t see where you are going with this.”  

“Now if carnal living is a lifestyle that does not submit to God’s Word, then how should we define carnal reasoning?” 

“The same way, I suppose?”  

“Right. It is not enough to submit what we do externally to God; we must also submit the way we think. Your friends are trying to defend God’s standards for living by abandoning His standards for thinking. It cannot be successful.”  

“Is there a passage where this point is clear?”  

“Yes, in Philippians. Chapter 2, verses 12 and 13.”  

I turned to Philippians and read. “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.” I looked up.  

“What does the passage say God is doing?” Pastor Spenser asked.  

I looked down again. “It says that He is working in the Philippians, both in willing and doing, and that the result is His good pleasure.”  

“And what would carnal reasoning do with that?”  

“Well, the response would be that if God is doing the willing, and if God is doing the doing, and the result is whatever He wants, then there is no reason for me to put myself out. It is going to happen anyway.”  

“Right. The reasoning says that if God is going to do the work, then why should I have to?”  

I nodded, and Pastor Spenser went on.  

“But what application of this truth does Paul command the Philippians to obey?”  

I looked at the passage again. “He tells them to work out their own salvation, with fear and trembling.” I glanced down further. “And in the next verse he goes on to specific ethical instruction – to avoid murmuring and disputing.”  

I sat and thought for a moment. “But my friends would say that the application they are making is obvious – common sense.”  

“Well, it certainly is common. But is it biblical?”  

“Why do so many Christians fall for this line of reasoning then? It seems like a trap that is extremely easy to fall into.”  

“Well, yes, it easy to fall into. But it is also easy to drink too much, not watch your tongue, lust after women, and so forth. And these are things which the church recognizes as sin, and warns the people against. But carnal reasoning is also easy, and almost no one warns the people.”  

“Why not?”  

“Sheep are hungry because shepherds don’t feed them. Shepherds don’t feed them because shepherds don’t have food.” Pastor Spenser leaned forward in his seat. “The shepherds don’t have food because they don’t study their Bibles.”  

“You think it is obvious in the Word?”  

“Certainly. When the apostle Paul magnified the prerogatives of the sovereign God, he fully anticipated the response of carnal reasoning.” Pastor Spenser leaned back, closed his eyes, and quoted, “You will say to me then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’” A modern pastor, in the unlikely event that someone asked him this, would say that it was a good question, and that he wrestles with it often himself. Paul tells the questioner to shut up and sit down. ‘But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God?’”  

“Paul doesn’t answer the question then?”  

Pastor Spenser opened his eyes. “Oh, he does. It just isn’t the answer carnal reason wants.”  

“So what is the answer?”  

“The answer is God – the same answer that is given at the end of the book of Job. Carnal reason doesn’t see a real answer there either. But believe me, it is a real answer. The answer is the ground of reality; the answer is God.”  

“What happens at the end of the book of Job?”  

“The questions raised in the book are conducive to carnal reason; indeed, even non-Christians are attracted to the first part of the book of Job. As they would put it, ‘It addresses the human condition.’ But then, at the end of the book, God comes in, with glory and thunder. And do you know what? He doesn’t answer any of the impertinent questions; rather, He poses some sobering questions of His own. ‘Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Now prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer Me.’”  

I nodded. “And He asks where Job was when the universe was created.”  

“The question is not irrelevant. It is the heart of the matter. Discussions of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility very rarely display any understanding at all of Who the Creator is.”  

“But my friends would say that you are making God responsible for evil, and that they are concerned to protect God’s honor and glory.”  

Pastor Spenser looked at me intently. “It is true that the affirmation of God’s total control over all things causes some to blaspheme. But your friends need not be concerned for God’s glory; man’s slanders and blasphemies do not touch Him. Such slanderers are pelting the sun with wadded-up balls of tissue paper.”  

“They are stumbling over something though.”  

“They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed.”  

“Now, see? Why do you have to put these things so strongly? Doesn’t that cause people to react to what you are teaching? They were appointed to stumble?”  

“That wasn’t my choice of words. I was quoting 1 Peter 2:8.”  

“Oh. Oops.”  

“Your friends are concerned that God be seen as good. But seen as good by whom? Those who believe the Word of God will know that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. Of course He is good – by definition. And those who do not believe the Word of God will persist in thinking that there is a tribunal or court somewhere in which God will one day be arraigned. On the day of judgment, their folly will be apparent to all – even to them.”  

“So how do we bring this back to the original point?”  

“The original point was the concern that the doctrine of God’s sovereignty would be made into a cushion for sin. My answer to this is that we must, in all things, recognize God as God. We must do so in how we live holy lives, but we must also do so in why we live holy lives. We are to live in a holy way because God has commanded it.”  

“But you would also say that what God has commanded the believer He has also given the believer.”  

“Well, certainly.”  

“I honestly see why carnal reason has a problem with this.”  

“And I honestly see why carnal men want to lust after beautiful women. But what does the Bible say?”  

“What do you mean?”  

“What is the greatest commandment?”  

“That we love God.”  

“And what is the first fruit of the Spirit?”  

“Love.” I said. “I see.”  

“What do you see?” Pastor Spenser asked.  

“This takes us back to Philippians. We are commanded to work out what God works in.”  

“Right.” he said. “Nothing less.”


This is Part 4 in a series of 6 posts titled Easy Chairs & Hard Words.