A while back Dave asked for a higher ethic in debating Calvinism. As opposed to name calling and strawman arguments from both sides, he put out a plea for exegetically based arguments. I hope this piece adds to the equation. What I am going to talk about here does not have to do with any of the 5-points per se, but I think is more foundational to them. It is the question of mankind’s natural, sin-stained heart and our ability to respond to the Gospel. As the title states, I want to interact with the question: do all people have an equal ability to respond to the Gospel?
This is a different question than: do all people have equal access to the Gospel? No matter our theological persuasion (from the orthodox side of things) we know the answer to this is “no,” and hence we seek to engage in missions to carry the Gospel to all peoples and all people. My question, instead seeks to ask, access to the Gospel being equal do two people who hear the same message necessarily have equal ability to respond in faith?
Many would answer, “Of course!” I’m going to answer, “No.” And for this answer I want us to consider two primary passages: John 10 and Matthew 13.
John 10: My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.
John 10 contains one of several discourses from Jesus John recorded. Though our English teachers may tell us never to mix metaphors, Jesus did just that. Speaking about the life sheep, Jesus first commented about how sheep do not follow the voice of a stranger but rather the voice of the one they were trained to follow—the voice they recognize, the voice of the shepherd. Jesus then said, “I am the door of the sheep.” All who came before (false messiahs) were thieves and robbers but the sheep rejected them. Jesus is the door and, “If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.”
“If anyone” serves as a general call. Whoever enters…whoever hears and believes…will find salvation. And since Jesus is the door, whoever enters obviously stand as sheep.
Just a few phrases later, Jesus changed his metaphor. “I am the good shepherd.” Why? Because the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He is the good shepherd because ultimately he gave himself up on the cross so that his sheep—his followers—might be spared from their enemies and have life. In 10:14, Jesus then said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” He repeated the idea with slightly different terminology in 10:27, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
So far, this is fairly straightforward but here is where we start running into the question at hand.
In 10:16 Jesus said, “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” This seems to best be understood as Jesus making a statement of Gentile inclusion. “This fold” is the Jews, and the others “not of this fold” are Gentiles. Jesus essentially said he would call people to himself from all nations and make them one people—with different symbolism, this becomes a clear and dominant theme in the rest of the New Testament.
The interesting thing here, though, is that Jesus refers to some among this other group as being his sheep before he calls to them. The Greek bears this out as equally as our English translations. “I have” is present and active, “will listen” is future and active.” These are sheep which belong to him, but they have yet to hear his voice and have yet to follow. Now if this were our only context, Jesus could be talking about foreseeing their faith and response, but the greater context of the passage seems to preclude this.
In 10:22-30, the scene shifts but the shepherding language remains. At the Feast of Dedication a group of Jews gather around Jesus and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” And Jesus responded, “I told you and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not a part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish…”
Read that carefully. They ask Jesus, “Tell us, are you the Christ?” He answers, “I’ve told you but you do not believe.” And why do they not believe? “Because you are not a part of my flock.”
The order here is important—Jesus did not say, “You are not a part of my flock because you do not believe.” Instead he said, “You do not believe because you are not a part of my flock.” Jesus based belief upon being a part of his flock and not the other way around. Then immediately he said, “My sheep hear my voice…they follow me…I give them eternal life.” Again, following Jesus and having eternal life does not lead to being a sheep, but being a sheep leads to following Jesus and having life.
If we take Jesus’ words at face-value they tell us that those Jews who were questioning him at the Feast did not have the same opportunity to believe as others because they were not pre-defined as Jesus’ sheep.
And I think we see this same idea expressed in different terms in Matthew 13.
Matthew 13: Other seeds fell on good soil…
Matthew recorded nearly an entire chapter filled with nothing but parables Jesus taught. In verses 1-23 Jesus told and explained the parable of the sower. And in the midst he also answered his disciples’ question about why he spoke in parables. Jesus said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” Then he quoted Isaiah, “For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn and I would heal them.” Undoubtedly it was their sin that dulled their heart and closed their ears and eyes, but Jesus told his disciples he spoke in parables so they could hear and understand but these others could not since it had not been given to them to know such things. In other words, the disciples had an opportunity to hear and know/understand something the others did not.
With the parable itself, Jesus spoke of a seed-sower who goes along casting seed wherever it may fall. Some lands on a path, others on rocky ground, others among thorns, and finally some on good soil. The birds ate the seed on the path. The seed on the rocky and weedy ground sprang up briefly but then died. And the seed on the good soil grew and produced a diverse crop.
After explaining the general purpose of parables, Jesus explained this specific Parable of the Sower. He called the seed “the word of the kingdom” and the soil a person’s heart (13:19). Thus, the seed is sown whenever the word of the kingdom (the Gospel) is proclaimed, and it falls upon four different types of soils or hearts. The first is a heart of no soil (the path)—this is a heart with no understanding and no reception of the Gospel message. The second and third types are hearts of rocky or weedy/thorny soils. In each case, the Gospel seems to have an effect and is accepted, but it proves to not be lasting. These are people who express faith and even joy (13:20) in the message of Christ, but it is a faith that does not endure either due to tribulation or desire for worldly pleasures. Therefore it is a faith that does not save.
(This would be a warning that, just like the demons in James, there are some who believe but are not saved. True faith is a living and active faith, not just an acknowledgement of belief or acceptance of Jesus.)
Then we have the good soil. “This is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields [some crop].” The point of the parable is clear: for us to hear, understand, and truly believe/follow the Gospel message our hearts must contain “good soil.” And with this—not everyone’s heart will have the same soil condition. Thus of the 4 types of soil/ground mentioned by Jesus, each does not have the ability to respond equally. We respond according to the condition of our hearts.
Now such condition is not something we can change in and of ourselves. Jeremiah said our hearts are deceitful and desperately sick (17:9). Paul wrote we are all, in our natural state, children of wrath and followers of the ways of Satan (Ephesians 2:1-3); and that none of us seek for God and his goodness (Romans 3).
Thus, the natural condition of the soil of our hearts is like the path, the bed of weeds, or bed of thorns. None of us have the good soil in ourselves to respond and believe. God says in Ezekiel 36 that he is the one who changes our hearts, removing a heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh, along with giving us his Spirit (36:26-27). For us to even believe, there must first be a change of heart (a sign of regeneration before faith?). Then we have the good soil to hear the message and respond in a true and lasting faith.
So even with the command to take the Gospel to all peoples and people (after all—even the elect must hear the Gospel to be saved), not all have the equal ability to respond positively to the Gospel message. God must make us sheep with good soil in our hearts to respond with a true and lasting faith, and God does not make everyone sheep with good soil.