Are you being Arbitrary When You Say that God is Arbitrary?

Steve Chalke–“why did God command us to forgive without demanding
punishment, but then God Himself wouldn’t forgive but instead demands
punishment (even if it was from Himself) to Himself? ”

The argument seems to be that either Jesus is our example and thus not unique, either that, or that Jesus is unique and thus not our example. Either Jesus accepting the unjust punishment is our example, OR the punishment of Jesus was the last final unique punishment and there is no more example, in which case you can do what you want because His death is not an example but unique.

But of course there is one more reading, and that’s from Romans 12 (leave the vengeance to God, don’t do vengeance yourself) and Hebrews (the violent sacrifice of Jesus does work, but it’s the only one that ever worked or will work, so don’t do sacrifices yourself).

Charles Bradlaugh–“What did Jesus teach–unto him that shoots your
wife, let him shoot you also? Surely it would be better to teach that
‘the one who tempts God and courts oppression shares the crime’, and
if one person is shot to shoot that person who shot to prevent future
shooting.” This argument says “if Jesus was a pacifist for you, then you don’t need to be a pacifist yourself” and it’s not only atheists who use this argument but many Christians.

Romans 3:3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though everyone were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” 5 But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? (I speak in a human way.) 6 By no means! For then how could God judge the world? 7 But if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner? 8 And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slander us with saying. Their condemnation is just.

I know some Calvinists (I was one of them) who think it is enough to say that God is sovereign. In this emphasis, sometimes they even project their own ego onto God, and sound like they think of themselves as sovereign also.

But the truth of the gospel is not only God’s sovereignty but also God’s righteousness. This means that the gospel is not only about the justification of the elect sinner but also about the justification of God.

I have no use for the “freewill theodicy”. But that does not mean that I am dismissive of efforts to justify God. To justify God does not of course mean that we make God just. Rather, it means that we declare that God is just.

When God justifies an elect sinner, it’s not only God’s sovereignty that declares the sinner just. God is justified in justifying the elect sinner because 1. Christ died because of the imputed guilt of that elect sinner and 2. God then righteously counted that elect sinner to legally share in that death. Because of these two facts of history, God is justified in justifying elect sinners.

But It certainly doesn’t look just. The elect sinners go free. Christ, who did not sin, died. Why doesn’t that just make things worse?

This is why we are tempted to say that the whole thing is only about God’s sovereignty and then tell people to shut their mouths and ask no questions.But the Bible itself does not take that attitude. The Bible tells us how God thinks. The Bible justifies God.

Romans 9 does not only ask: “who are you to talk back to God”. Romans 9 explains that it is inappropriate for that which is made to sit in negative judgment on the maker. That which is made is instead to make the positive judgment that God has the righteous right to harden as many as God hardens. Since God is our Creator, it’s not completely “arbitrary” for God to govern and judge us. It’s not the same as you being a parent and thinking that gives you the right to tell your (adult) children what to do.

Romans 6 deals with the objection that God justifying sinners will cause sinners to rationalize their sins, so that they not only say that their sins were predestined but also that they say that more sins result in more grace.

The Romans 6 answer is that grace is either grace or not. There is not more or less grace, but either grace or no grace. More sin does not get the elect more grace, because all those God justly justifies have all the grace any other elect person has. If you have grace, then you are justified from sin, and if you don’t have grace, you are a sinner “free from righteousness” (6:20).

While unbelievers trust in God to help them to sin less, those who have been delivered to the gospel know that there are only two kind of sinners, —guilty sinners and justified sinners .

The theodicy of Romans 3 announces that God is true even if every man is a liar. We justify God because God has revealed Himself. And God has revealed that God is more than sovereign. God’s words reveal God to be Righteous and Just. And God’s word is justified in history by what God did when Christ gave Himself up to death on the cross because of the imputed guilt of the elect.

We were wrong: God was right and God is still right. God prevails, but it is not only a matter of “might makes right” or “sovereignty always wins”. One. We have no right to make a negative judgment on God. Two, it is God who will be making a negative judgment on many sinners. Three. we are called to make a positive rational judgment about God’s justice.

But how do these three points connect and cohere?

What God pleases to do is right. And there is no better proof of that than the way God justifies elect sinners. The wisdom of the cross shows God’s righteousness. It is just for God to not only let elect sinners go free but also to give them faith and all the other blessings of salvation. The death of Jesus was not only “one more bad thing”. That death without resurrection might have been, but Christ’s death plus resurrection , despite the sins of those who killed Jesus, was to God a good thing which reconciles and makes things right.

Yes, it is grace to those sinners saved by it, but also it was just for God to do it, because of what Christ did in his obedience even unto death. As Isaiah 53 explains, the righteous servant will be satisfied. God will be just to Christ. And God is just to justify elect sinners for the sake of Christ.

Psalm 116:11—“I said in my alarm, ‘All mankind are liars’” Not only is God justified, but sinners are condemned. We see this in Romans 1:25 . All of us have been people who “exchange the truth for a lie”.

It is idolatry to only know a God who is sovereign. The true God is also righteous. It is rebellion against the Creator to deny that God is just. Psalm 51:4-6—“Against you have I sinned and done what is evil, so that you are justified in your words and blameless in your judgment..Behold you delight in truth…” Two things go together: God tells the truth, we are false.

The gospel is good news for the elect, but not without also being first bad news. You can call it “law before gospel” if you wish. But part and parcel of justifying God (and trusting God’s true gospel) is taking sides with God against our-selves. We can’t both be right. God is right, and we are wrong. If God is right, then we are wrong.

If we ever get to thinking that God is only being sovereign but not being fair to us, then we show not only that we are wrong but also that God has not yet called us by the gospel to the truth. We should not only confess that God is going to get God’s way, that God is going to win. We need to learn to confess that the way God acts and judges is just. We make a positive judgment about God. That is a result, and not a condition of God having justified us.

To reject the righteousness of God (His attribute, not only Christ’s saving work and gift) is to reject the true God. Romans 3:3 tells us that God’s faithfulness proves that God is the true God. Isaiah 42:3—“He will faithfully bring forth justice.” Isaiah 45:19—“I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness. I did not say to the seed of Jacob, seek me in vain. I the Lord speak the truth. I declare what is right”.

Getting in a dispute with the true God shows not only that we are foolish to fight with the Almighty. Getting in a debate with God shows just how arbitrary we ourselves are! The irony every time is that our lies, rationalizations, self-deceptions only result in the truth of God being more declared. And then, when we try to say, “well at least our falsehoods are making God look more faithful”, we are brought face to face with the fact of Romans 3:5—God is the righteous judge of us. God is not only “the boss of us”, because God is judging us and will judge us.

God takes sides with Himself. God takes sides against sinners. God is not neutral arbitrator. God is one of the parties in God’s lawsuit against sinners. The God we have offended by being sinners (exchanging truth for idolatry) is the God who will judge all sinners.

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14 Comments on “Are you being Arbitrary When You Say that God is Arbitrary?”

  1. markmcculley Says:

    Bosso to Anselm, Cur Deus Homo–“when God commands us in every case to forgive those who trespass against us, it seems inconsistent for God to command a thing upon us which is not proper for God to do HImself.”

  2. markmcculley Says:

    I deny that God “could have” willed to forgive without satisfaction.

    Isaiah 45:19—“I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness. I did not say to the seed of Jacob, seek me in vain. I the Lord speak the truth. I declare what is right”.

    Romans 3:3 What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? 4 By no means! Let God be true though everyone were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you …

    Luke 7:35 Yet wisdom is justified by all her children.

    Mark Mcculley Job 40: 6 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 7 “ I will question you, and you make it known to me. 8 Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?

  3. markmcculley Says:

    James 1: 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

    16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. 17 Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18 Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.

  4. markmcculley Says:

    There is a “justification” which is a declaring only (without a transfer). As God condemned Adam for his sin, without transferring that sin to Adam, even so the already just can be justified. Rom 3:3 Does their faithfulness nullify the faithfulness of God. By no means. Let God be true and every man a liar, as it is written, ” That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.”

    This is a quotation from Psalm 51, which is a classic instance of God being justified in His justice. David taking sides against himself–asking God not only to be gracious to David the ungodly (even in an on-going way, after David had already been justified), but also asking God to be just in being gracious. David is not transferring justice to God, but declaring God’s justice.

    Let me give a couple more references for this. I got them from Abraham Booth’s Reign of Grace (p144,gospel mission edition).

    Luke 7:29 When the people heard this (about john baptist), they declared God just…

    Matthew 11:19 yet wisdom is justified by her deeds

    And then there is the all important reference, which gets to the central issue of Jesus Christ having obtained His own justification by his work of death, after having been imputed with the sins of the elect for whom He was surety. I Timothy 3:16 He was manifested in the flesh, justified by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.

  5. markmcculley Says:

    There never was nor could be any other God
    God did not decide what kind of God to be
    Election and justice both at the same time are in God’s nature

  6. markmcculley Says:

    Habakkuk 1:13

    13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
    why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he?

    Carl Trueman: Owen’s insistence on absolute necessity of the cross could well be construed as a denial of God’s
    freedom to act in any other way, and thus of his omnipotence. Owen’s defense of God’s liberty against the background of such views is twofold. First, it is clear from his argument that God’s vindicatory justice is not absolutely necessary, but as its relational nature shows, it is contingent on the existence of rational, sinful creatures and, thus, on the creation. Creation, as an uncoerced act of God’s will, is not necessitated by his own being but is an act of free choice; thus, no act involving the creation is, in an absolute sense, necessary.

    Secondly, Owen denies that God’s freedom requires that God BE ABLE TO CHOOSE whether to punish sin or not but simply that such punishment must be performed with a concomitant liberty, i.e., in a way that is entirely consistent with his own nature.

    to assert that Owen denies God’s freedom by arguing for the necessity of atonement is simply to betray a
    fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of that freedom. One might as well argue that the fact that God cannot tell a lie makes him less than all-powerful. God’s justice is the sum of all his perfections and has priority over his will; all of his external acts are to be consistent with this; given the existence of sinful creation, God must punish because failure to do so would amount to a denial of the necessary relationship that exists between creature and creator.” (Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998): pg. 95-96)

  7. markmcculley Says:

    A modern dictionary defines “gift” as something delivered to a recipient “gratuitously, for nothing.” Yet, according to John Barclay’s new book Paul and the Gift, It is Paul—not intuition or common sense or objective, timeless instinct—who is almost single-handedly responsible for making it seem obvious to most of us in the modern West that God’s grace excludes human working.
    For many 1st-century readers, God upheld his fidelity to Israel by distributing his grace to those who are worthy of it. For them this did not make God’s grace any less gracious. To define grace otherwise—to say that God gives it in disregard for the worth of its beneficiaries—they thought would be to open the door to moral chaos and anarchy, to snip the thread that links human pursuit of virtue with the deep structures of creation and providence.
    It was not “Lutheran theology” but Paul who undermined human religion’s quest to climb its way into divine favor. Opposing the “Judaizers” of his day, Paul in the 1st century anticipated Martin Luther’s struggles against a petty and fastidious medieval Catholicism in the 16th.
    Barclay grants that Luther mistakenly thought that Paul’s target in his Galatians epistle was self-reliant boasting (if that were the burning issue, “it is hard to see why Paul would discount both circumcision and uncircumcision”).
    Over against the “new perspective,” Barclay understands Paul to be unleashing a “bizarre,” even “dangerous” definition of grace . For Paul, grace is incongruous—it is a gift that does not “fit” or “match” the worth of those to whom God gives it. In defiance of human achievement, God gives grace to a supposedly successful but actually bankrupt person like Paul (the acme of Paul’s human “achievement” had actually set him against God’s church).
    In defiance of human failure, God gives grace to the utterly unworthy idol worshipers of Gentile cities around the Mediterranean. Because grace erupts, cause-less, in the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it can therefore be given to anyone ….No preparation is necessary, and no conditions must be met before the gift of Christ may be received.

    gifts not to the worthy

    arbitrary, lottery

    to ungodly enemies

  8. markmcculley Says:

    for the non-elect, God’s mercy does not triumph over God’s justice for the elect, God’s justice never comes at the expense of God’s mercy

  9. markmcculley Says:

    He was with God in the beginning.
    3 All things were created through Him,
    and apart from Him not one thing was created
    that has been created.
    4 Life was in Him,
    and that life was the light of men.
    5 That light shines in the darkness,
    yet the darkness did not overcome it…
    10 He the light was in the world,
    and the world was created through Him,
    yet the world did not recognize Him.
    11 He came to His own,
    and His own people did not receive Him.
    12 But to all who did receive Him,
    He gave them the right to be children of God,
    to those who believe in His name,
    13 who were born,
    not of blood,
    or of the will of the flesh,
    or of the will of man,
    but of God.
    14 The Word became flesh
    and took up living among us.
    We observed His glory,
    the glory as the One and Only Son from the Father,
    full of grace and truth…
    18 No one has ever seen God.
    The One and Only Son
    the One who is at the Father’s side—
    He has revealed Him.

  10. markmcculley Says:

    II Samuel 24: 10 David’s conscience troubled him after he had taken a census of the troops. He said to the Lord, “I have sinned greatly in what I’ve done. Now, Lord, because I’ve been very foolish, please take away Your servant’s guilt.” 11 When David got up in the morning, a revelation from the Lord had come to the prophet Gad 12 “Go and say to David, ‘This is what the Lord says: I am offering you three choices. Choose one of them, and I will do it to you.’”
    13 So Gad went to David, told him the choices, and asked him, “Do you want three years of famine to come on your land, to flee from your foes three months while they pursue you, or to have a plague in your land three days? Now, think it over and decide what answer I should take back to the One who sent me.” 14 David answered Gad, “I have great anxiety. Please, let us fall into the Lord’s hands because His mercies are great, but don’t let me fall into human hands.”
    16 THEN the angel extended his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, but the Lord relented concerning the destruction and said to the angel who was destroying the people, “Enough, withdraw your hand now!”
    17 When David saw the angel striking the people, he said to the Lord, “Look, I am the one who has sinned; I am the one[d] who has done wrong. But these sheep, what have they done? Please, let Your hand be against me and my father’s family.” 18 Gad came to David that day and said to him, “Go up and set up an altar to the Lord on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.”
    22 Araunah said to David, “My lord the king may take whatever he wants and offer it. Here are the oxen for a burnt offering and the threshing sledges and ox yokes for the wood. Then he said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept you.” 24 The king answered Araunah, “No, I insist on buying it from you for a price, for I will not offer to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”
    David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for 20 ounces of silver. 25 He built an altar to the Lord there and offered burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. THEN the Lord answered prayer on behalf of the land, and the plague on Israel ended.
    2 Chronicles 3.1 Solomon began to build the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared to his father David. It was on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, the place provided by David.

  11. markmcculley Says:

    Luke 14: Jesus asked the law experts and the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” 4 But they kept silent. He took the man, healed him, and sent him away. 5 And to them, He said, “Which of you whose son or ox falls into a well, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?” 6 To this they could find no back answer.

    Romans 9: 19 You will say to me, therefore, “Why then does He still find fault? For who can resist His will?” 20 But who are you, a mere man, to talk back to God? Will what is formed say to the one who formed it, “Why did you make me like this?” 21 Or has the potter no right over the clay, to make from the same lump one piece of pottery for honor and another for dishonor? 22 And what if God, desiring to display His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience objects of wrath ready for destruction? 23 And what if God did this to make known the riches of His glory on objects of mercy that He prepared beforehand for glory—

  12. markmcculley Says:

    Psalm 91: 7 Though a thousand fall at your side
    and ten thousand at your right hand,
    the pestilence will not reach YOU
    8 YOU WILL ONLY SEE IT with your eyes

    9 Because you have made the Lord—my refuge,
    the Most High—your dwelling place,
    10 no harm will come to YOU;
    no plague will come NEAR YOUR TENT.
    11 For He will give His angels orders concerning YOU,
    to protect YOU in all your ways.

  13. markmcculley Says:

    Lennox relentlessly caricatures the position he is disagreeing with. At one point he illustrates his opponents view using the example of God controlling his arm to make him punch someone before holding him responsible for it (this shall be examined further below). He informs us that contrary to the Reformed view, God does not ‘micromanage’.[11] In one bizarre paragraph, he argues that the fact that God gave a few specific instructions to Abraham, rather than popping up constantly to tell him what to do at every turn, is somehow a point against ‘theological determinism’. The salience of this argument to a discussion about whether God guides events from ‘behind the scenes’ is unclear. We are repeatedly told that, contrary to the Reformed position, God’s will is not ‘arbitrary’ (seven times),[12] and that God is not a ‘despot’ (twice),[13] a ‘dictator’ (four times)[14] or a ‘moral monster’ (twice).[15] The fact that any Reformed theologian would agree that God cannot be described using any of these emotionally charged labels, coupled with the absence of any serious engagement with a particular theological system, suggests a patent straw-man approach. This is especially obvious when Lennox sums up two ways of thinking about God’s sovereignty: ”One is in terms of divine determinism. Another is that God is a loving creator who has made human beings in his image’.[16] One could be forgiven for thinking that this is perhaps not an entirely balanced summation.

    The most pervasive aspect of Lennox’s argument is that it is made within a framework in which God’s will and human wills occupy and compete over the same space. For example, Lennox speaks of God ‘devolving power’ to humans by giving them free will,[17] thus suggesting that in order to avoid determinism, God must move out of the way and cede some space for humans to act. He depicts the Reformed position as enabling a situation in which God ‘takes over and “directly controls” the molecules in my arm – for instance, as it swings to hit you’,[18] a situation which Lennox rightly says should not leave him responsible for this action. Here it appears that, for Lennox, God’s action and human action do not operate in the same event at different levels – it must be one or the other. This framework is also evident where Lennox tell us that Calvinists believe that God causes people to sin then cruelly blames them for it[19] and says that repentance has no meaning if God causes people to sin.[20]

    It will therefore be unsurprising that Lennox never mentions the doctrine of ‘concurrence’, a major part of the classical doctrine of providence which explains how God can sovereignly guide creation without overriding the real responsibility and will of human beings. The notion of a non-competitive, compatible relationship between God’s action and creaturely action, which has had some excellent attention in modern theology in the work of Katherine Tanner and Rowan Williams, has no place in Lennox’s scheme. This comes out further in Lennox’s description of Reformed notions of sovereignty as suggesting ‘dictatorship’ or ‘depotism’.[21] Lennox is imagining what it would look like if a human had the same rights of sovereignty as God has, before improperly importing this moral abhorrence back into a divine context. Whether intentionally or not, Lennox appears to think of God as a being who is ‘within’ the cause and effect nexus of creation, whose will and action competes over the same space as human will and action. Suffice to say this is an utterly different framework than the classical theistic approach of the Reformed and other ‘deterministic’ theologians (and, I would argue, the Bible itself, eg. Acts 2:23).

    This wider ‘competitive’ framework significantly impacts upon Lennox’s exegesis. We can see this most clearly where he treats examples of human responsibility in scripture as evidence against a Reformed interpretation. Of course, this only works as evidence if we presuppose the position that we have to choose between God in some sense causing someone to do something or that person choosing for themselves. For example, Lennox presents Jesus’ appeals to people’s minds and moral sensibilities in John 7 and 8 as positive evidence for libertarian free will. He concludes that ‘Christ treated them as responsible moral agents who were capable of making moral decisions’.[22] Similarly, he seems to think that exhortations to ‘believe’ in Scripture prove that it is a human decision and therefore not something decreed by God.[23] If we assume the either/or framework, then all Lennox needs to do is point out that Scripture expects humans to make real moral choices to prove his point. If we do not assume this framework, these examples from scripture are of little relevance to the debate.

  14. Mark Mcculley Says:

    The occasionalist (nominalist)  says that  it’s all an arbitrary legal fiction in the first place, so don’t worry yourself to be precise about what you believe in—

    —the miraculous I cannot perform but only be amazed by … Indeed, if at the moment Abraham swung his leg over the ass’s back he had said to himself, “now Isaac is lost, I could just as well sacrifice him here at home as travel to Moriah,” then I do not need Abraham

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