Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Isaiah 53:1 - Faith and Election

Who has believed our message?

With these words we enter the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, which really should have begun at verse 13 of the 52nd chapter, as Calvin wryly notes:

"This division, or rather dismemberment, of the chapter, ought to be disregarded; for it ought to have begun with the thirteenth verse of the former chapter, and these words ought to be connected with what goes before." (from Calvin's Commentary)

And we will treat it thus.

Here our thoughts are directed to the pertinent question: who has faith? Who has believed the Word of God through His prophets? Who trusts in Him? Who takes His words to heart?

The stunning revelation of Christ's Person and work was, to human thinking, unbelievable. Apart from divine help, man cannot believe the truth of the Gospel. He cannot because he will not. And this stubborn unwillingness is incurable apart from the intervention of God.

Background Study

The 17th Century English theologian, Matthew Poole, rightly describes the meaning of this phrase:

"Who, not only of the Gentiles, but even of the Jews, will believe the truth of what I have said and must say? Few or none. The generality of them will never receive nor believe in such a Messias as this. Thus this place is expounded by Christ himself, John 12:38, and by Paul, Romans 10:16. And this premonition was highly necessary, both to caution the Jews that they should not stumble at this stone, and to instruct the Gentiles that they should not be surprised, nor scandalized, nor seduced with their example." (from Matthew Poole's Commentary)

NOTE: Although Poole's sentiments are correct, he misses the fact that it is John who is speaking in 12:38, not Christ (the verse is quoted below). But ALL the Word of God is Christ's teaching. And from Whom did John learn these things in the first place?

John applies this verse in a remarkable way, not simply as asking who will believe, but as predicting the unbelief of Israel . . .

John 12:36b-40 These things Jesus spoke, and He went away and hid Himself from them. But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet which he spoke: “LORD, WHO HAS BELIEVED OUR REPORT? AND TO WHOM HAS THE ARM OF THE LORD BEEN REVEALED?” For this reason they could not believe, for Isaiah said again, “HE HAS BLINDED THEIR EYES AND HE HARDENED THEIR HEART, SO THAT THEY WOULD NOT SEE WITH THEIR EYES AND PERCEIVE WITH THEIR HEART, AND BE CONVERTED AND I HEAL THEM.”
These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory, and he spoke of Him.

John is reminding us that the tragic unbelief of the Jewish nation was not a surprise to God. In this he agrees perfectly with Paul's description of Jewish unbelief as the very means by which God opened the door to the Gentiles (more on this below). But first . . .


What is meant by all of this blinding and hardening? (You may want to refer to my series called "Hardened Hearts and Human Choices" for a discussion of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart). On the surface, I see two major (and inter-related) theological problems in this text. On an initial reading, this passage appears to contain an affirmation of a certain type of imbalanced Calvinism, but also a defeater for all Calvinsim. The seeming contradiction is enough to leave one entirely baffled. But we are going to look at this in light of the whole Biblical balance and a study of the related texts, and thereby discover the TRUTH of the matter, which is hidden just under the surface.

The thrust of the passage is that God was sovereignly at work in the hardening of the reprobate within Israel. This shows the sovereignty of God in man's salvation, and that's the essence of Calvinism, plain and simple. No problems with this generality, but what about the particulars?

The Theological Trouble Begins Here

What indeed shall we do with this: God is said to harden and blind people who, according to the doctrines of grace, are already hardened and already blind! If everyone is totally depraved, there is no need for God to actively harden the reprobate. All He has to do is leave sinners in their natural condition, for their eyes are indeed blind and their hearts are already hardened. So, all at once we have an apparent and implied denial of total depravity (a sure defeater to all Calvinism) and an apparent affirmation of active reprobation (a necessary tenet in the more hyper brands of Calvinism). Worst of all, God appears malevolent, as though people are trying to believe, ready to have their eyes opened, but He isn't letting them simply because He wants to bring them to destruction. It seems we may have to completely re-work our understanding of soteriology (the Biblical doctrine of how God saves people) to make sense out of this passage. Perhaps we will be forced into some sort of hybrid that includes elements of both Pelagianism and Hyper-Calvinism! But at the same time we would find ourselves fighting other Scriptural truths - such as total depravity (which is clearly taught), and the ultra-foundational issue of the sheer goodness/kindness/benevolence of God. What to do? What to do!?

Before we abandon reason and Biblical faith to go off on a wild theological goose chase that might lead us to a "newer" and "better" theology, let's spend a little more time (and effort) examining the Scriptures. Too many have used just such cases as this to justify their departure from orthodoxy. Sadly, this only reveals the very type of unbelief John is warning us against.

NOTE: Arminianism offers us no help here. Total depravity is the ONE tenet of Calvinism that is affirmed in classical Arminianism. And if one seeks refuge in "open theism," that is also defeated by God's blinding and hardening of the reprobate. All man-centered theology falls flat if God has ANY REAL sovereignty at all in the matter of salvation. The question here is, how can we maintain the Biblical doctrine of divine sovereignty without painting God as unloving, unkind, capricious or unjust? I will argue that a Biblically balanced Calvinism best explains all of the Biblical data.

Who Hardened Whose Heart?

After quoting Isaiah 53:1, John mentions the following passage from Isaiah 6 . . .

Isaiah 6:8-13 Then I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for Us?” Then I said, “Here am I. Send me!” He said, “Go, and tell this people: ‘keep on listening, but do not perceive; keep on looking, but do not understand.’ Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed.” Then I said, “Lord, how long?” And He answered, “Until cities are devastated and without inhabitant, houses are without people and the land is utterly desolate, the LORD has removed men far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. Yet there will be a tenth portion in it, and it will again be subject to burning, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.”

Read this through a couple of times, and let the meaning sink in. This is God's response to "seeker sensitive ministry." God notes that people aren't looking for Him, rather they are rejecting Him. Unrepentant sinners can pretend to be looking and listening, and "searching," but apart from real repentance, real spiritual sight, a real hearing and taking to heart of the Word of God, all of the preaching and teaching is only making them more resistant to divine overtures.

Notice that the passage is not phrased the way John puts it. John says God hardened the hearts of the people, but in the original passage God told Isaiah to harden their hearts. Rather than seeing this as a contradiction, we should recognize John's intent: to magnify the sovereignty of God. Though people chose freely and voluntarily to harden their hearts, God's sovereignty was nonetheless entirely in control of the situation. What He did through Isaiah, HE did. The prophet was His instrument, but the ends achieved were God's Own ends.

How did God achieve these ends? Here we come to the heart of the matter. The means by which Isaiah was to harden the hearts of Israel was the preaching of God's Word. The same message that effectually draws out the elect for salvation also hardens the reprobate into a more settled state of unbelief. Like Pharaoh, the people of Israel had already hardened their hearts and closed their eyes. Because they lacked faith, God's commands to them through the prophet only served to deepen the conditions that already existed in them. So Isaiah is making hard hearts even more stubborn simply by proclaiming the truth. Here we see the terrible reality of total depravity: apart from electing grace, sinful man can get worse, but not better. Apart from faith, the Word is always unprofitable to us. This is not due to a lack of grace in God, but man's ongoing choice to reject the grace that is offered. It is not that man is seeking God and sincerely looking for Him, but is being prevented by a hateful Deity. No, no, no! Man has utterly rebelled against the Sovereign One, though God has given him - and continues to give him - every reason to repent. The passage is not presenting a defeater to total depravity, but instead is radically affirming it! Thus we conclude that sinful man is all at once totally depraved and fully responsible and choosing freely and unable to do otherwise without help from God. These are sensible paradoxes, but to the fallen mind they are loathesome.

NOTE: here's some gasoline to throw on the fire: II Corinthians 4:4 says the "god of this world" (i.e., satan) has "blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God." The paradoxes only deepen when we realize satan has his own evil role in the process of reprobation, yet God is still fully sovereign and man is still responsibly choosing.

Looking Through the Eyes of our Hearts

On to the NEXT BIG QUESTION: why would God NOT elect many of the individuals within His chosen nation? Why would some in Israel be left hardened and blinded? For the answer, we must turn to Paul's lengthy discussion in Romans 9 through 11. We must be careful not to approach this question with our native human logic at the forefront. We can only understand these matters by grace, through faith, and without our humanistic, limited, earth-bound "reasoning" fogging up the glass. Our false, natural ideas are constantly breathing over the surface of our hearts, which function as a spiritual lens, as it were. Because of this fog, we're not going to see eternal things as clearly as God does. But we can see them to some extent, and in fact we must grasp the basics if we are to get any rest for our troubled minds when it comes to this matter of divine election and the fate of the non-elect.

Extending the heart-lens analogy a little further, we might say that Arminians and Hyper-Calvinists tend to demand hard human logic, which is the equivalent of purposely breathing all over the glass and then using one's fingers to draw out 2-dimensional mathematical equations. Voila, they say, it's sooooo simple! Sure, it's simple if you refuse to examine the balance of Scripture, and if you never gaze into the dimensions of eternity where human reasoning starts to disintegrate and God's transcendent TRUTH comes into focus - knowable, but beyond the grasp of human minds. Yes, TRUTH is bigger than the mind of man. Let's clear off the glass and look beyond the human logic (and above it) to discover the thoughts of God. Our approach is to STOP BREATHING, hold our breath for a moment, and gaze through with eyes of faith, folding our hands together, calming our hearts before God, and keeping our grubby fingers out of the way. Anyhow, this is the aim. And in this posture, what do we see?

Paul's Answer: God is Sovereign Over All

Paul says: "So then, it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy (Romans 9:16) . . . So then He has mercy on whom He desires, and He hardens whom He desires (Romans 9:18) . . . Or does not the potter have a right over the clay, to make from the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for common use? What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory, even us, whom He also called, not from among Jews only, but also from among Gentiles (Romans 9:21-24) . . . Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, 'though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sand of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved.' (Romans 9:27) . . . However, they did not all heed the good news; for Isaiah says, 'Lord, who has believed our report?' So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:16-17) . . . But as for Israel He says, 'All the day long I have stretched out My hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.' (Romans 10:21) . . . I say then, God has not rejected His people, has he? May it never be! (Romans 11:1) . . . God has not rejected His people, whom He foreknew (Romans 11:2) . . . there has also come to be at the present time a remnant according to God's gracious choice (Romans 11:5) . . . What then? What Israel was seeking it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened; just as it is written, 'God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes to see not and ears to hear not, down to this very day.' And David says, 'Let their table become a snare and a trap, and a stumbling block and a retribution to them. Let their eyes be darkened to see not, and bend their backs forever.' I say then, they did not stumble so as to fall, did they? May it never be! But by their transgression salvation has come to the Gentiles . . . (Romans 11:7-13)

Notice that God's intention in hardening and blinding the reprobate is not so much to destroy the reprobate as it is to "make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy." Notice that this hardening is actually an expression of His patience, not a manifestation of His wrath!

In the Biblical picture we see GOD, saving, BY GRACE, a people of HIS OWN CHOOSING, for HIS OWN GLORY, and bringing about a beautiful work by redeeming believing sinners. We see the fruit of Christ's work on the cross! We see God's infinite goodness in action! We catch sight of His eternal glory! And this glory is magnified by two things:

1. God's JUSTICE in bringing wrath on the unbelieving.
2. God's MERCY in saving His elect.

He is stretching out his hands toward the elect and the non-elect ALL THE DAY LONG, drawing all men to Himself - even though most continue steadfastly in their refusal of His mercy.

It's Just Plain Bible-ism

This isn't just Calvinism, it's Paul-ism, and it's John-ism, and it's Isaiah-ism, and it's Jesus-Christ-ism, and it's Bible-ism. Who has believed their message? Do you believe it?

I do not ask if you can explain it (I am fairly sure you can't), but only if you believe . . .


  1. John's quotation of Isaiah here, not using the same wording, and other places where NT authors quote similarly, is what I am having difficulty with. Has the original intention of the OT author been changed and taken out of context? If we are to remain orthodox we are to say no. But it gets me wondering...

    And as for the hardening discussion in the content of these verses, I came across a similar paradox in a Duet 29:4 passage and an Eze 12:1 passage. The Duet passage says the Lord has NOT given you (Israel) eyes to see. But in the Eze passage is says the Lord HAS given you (Israel) eyes to see BUT they don't see. Why don't they see? The passage does not specify and it remains a paradoxical mystery. However, we do know from many other passages in the OT that this statement is not an absolute to every individual because there are always a few who do see and believe. And the Eze passage does go on to say that even though they are a rebellious house 'it may be that they will consider' (or some of them) adding an element of uncertainty to the outcome. Some will believe. In calvinism this would be called the elect. While I like to use the term elect, I also like to use the term remnant which seems to be used more frequently in the OT than elect.

  2. Jon,

    I haven't delved too far into the kinds of textual issues you're bringing up, but others have (cf. D.A. Carson's "Word Within the Word" series, etc). Inerrancy is a doctrine that challenges our faith and our reasoning abilities at the same time. However, I believe it is ultimately reasonable and is in fact demanded by the nature of Who God Is, what Truth is, and how God communicates - in addition to the Bible's own statements about itself. Still, I find there are aspects of this doctrine that are surprising and difficult (though not unlike the issues related to Christ's full humanity and complete divinity).

    You've pointed out a fascinating paradox of Biblical language in Detueronomy 29 and Ezekiel 12. One could try to explain this by saying that the Deuteronomy passage was spoken to a primitive Israel that hadn't yet been given eyes to see, and by the post-exilic times of Ezekiel they had been given eyes to see - and yet they still DIDN'T see. It's the difference between being truly blind and just refusing to open your eyes. Anyway, that was just my first thought on a quick reading of the passages, so it could be way off.

    I also like the term "remnant," which carries huge significance on the issue of Israel's election and apostasy. The term reflects the complex reality of Israel as a physical nation, with physical land, and also as a spiritual community of the "elect." And all of this ties to Christ's call, "To him who has ears to hear, let him hear."

    Spiritual sensitivity is a gift of God, and yet the senses are man's and are exercised by man's free and responsible will (but not, in my view, the "libertarian" kind of free will - more the Edwardsian kind, which is deeply paradoxical).

    What's this? Now you're finding paradoxes and bringing them to me!


  3. Derek,

    "Arminianism offers us no help here. Total depravity is the ONE tenet of Calvinism that is affirmed in classical Arminianism."

    Actually, the Arminian/Synergist view is that while people are depraved, they can believe through grace; hardening could then be a lessening of their understanding so they cannot believe.

    "Though people chose freely and voluntarily to harden their hearts, God's sovereignty was nonetheless entirely in control of the situation."

    I wouldn't disagree with that statement; but the term 'sovereignty' doesn't entail exhaustive micro-management, as some Calvinists have erroneously painted it; it indicates capability rather than methodology.

  4. J.C.,

    Thanks for commenting.

    Many classical Arminians, such as Roger Olson, are emphatic on the point that Arminians believe in total depravity. As you noted, Arminians nonetheless believe people "can believe through grace." So it's actually a bit of a nice paradox, (total depravity + prevenient grace = free will), but it's not one I find Biblically viable. I find the paradox of effectual calling much more compelling and Biblically supportable, although it is troublesome to many because it leaves the ultimate and decisive factor in God's hands, not man's.

    On the sovereignty issue, I'd have to take a similar stand. As I see it, the Biblical version of sovereignty is much more than a capability to control. It is a loving, God-glorifying, all-wise, omnipotent and effective management of "all things" (Romans 8:28) so that they work together for His glory and our good. There's freedom in the equation, but not the kind of freedom that prevenient grace would posit.

    Anyhow, I'm fairly sure you and I won't agree on these matters, nor will we benefit from arguing about them, but it's nice to hear from you and I hope you enjoyed the post.

    Arminian brothers (and others who disagree with me) are very welcome here at THEOparadox - so long as everyone remains respectful. Friendly dialogue amongst opposing views can be beneficial, but I conscientiously strive to avoid fruitless debating.

    Grace & peace,
    Derek Ashton

  5. Derek,

    "So it's actually a bit of a nice paradox, (total depravity + prevenient grace = free will)"

    Well, technically, free will exists apart from either depravity or grace, but is strongly affected by both, hence it would be more akin to (free will + bondage of that will + grace) = a man may believe.

    "...but it's not one I find Biblically viable."

    May I ask why?

    "As I see it, the Biblical version of sovereignty is much more than a capability to control."

    That's only the base definition of sovereignty, since authority itself does not necessarily equal exercise of authority. However, I do believe that God works His will in all things -- often employing men's free will choices to do so.

    "There's freedom in the equation, but not the kind of freedom that prevenient grace would posit."

    In your estimation, how would prevenient grace conflict with God's sovereignty?

    "I conscientiously strive to avoid fruitless debating."


  6. J.C.,

    Thanks for clarifying your thoughts on the free will issue. My answer to all three of the your questions could probably be summed up with this:

    See Romans 8:28-30.

    Obviously, a lot of other Scripture would need to be examined and cited in order to make a fully developed case, but I'm not about to write a systematic theology text. I'd recommend Grudem for that.

    Regarding the sovereignty of God, I find the excerpts from Romans 9-11 (cited in the post) to be entirely convincing, as well as everything from the Joseph account to Nebuchadnezzar's conversion to ... well, all the events that have ever taken place in history. It's HIS STORY. Also, you can find more of my thoughts about election, sovereignty and free will in the series of posts about the hardening of Pharaoh's heart.

    The Arminian/Calvinist debate is being covered fairly well over at Triablogue (on the Calvinist side) and at some Arminian sites I've seen around the web. Personally, I think all of these folks are in danger of giving themselves a bad headache and unnecessary frustration. The values and presuppositions that make a person a Calvinist or an Arminian aren't transferable by way of intellectual argument. I've been on both sides, so I'm sympathetic to both sides, but I'm Biblically convinced that Calvinism is the more Scripturally balanced system. I know there are plenty of good Christians who disagree heartily, and that's fine with me. May each believer follow the Scriptures as closely and sincerely as he is able.


  7. Derek,

    "See Romans 8:28-30 ... Regarding the sovereignty of God, I find the excerpts from Romans 9-11 (cited in the post) to be entirely convincing"

    Was there some point in these specifically that you believe prevenient grace simply doesn't fit with?

    "as well as everything from the Joseph account to Nebuchadnezzar's conversion to ... well, all the events that have ever taken place in history."

    Correct me if I'm mistaken, are you saying that all this occurring is evidence for exhaustive determinism (or 'meticulous exercise of sovereignty' if you prefer)?

    "The Arminian/Calvinist debate is being covered fairly well over at Triablogue (on the Calvinist side)"

    My condolences.

    "I know there are plenty of good Christians who disagree heartily, and that's fine with me."

    I'm glad. If we forget that whole 'love one another' part, we've lost a lot more than theology.

  8. J.C.,

    We don't have to do the little dance. I know you're already familiar with the Calvinistic arguments and don't agree with them, so there's no need for me to re-state them here. I've been arguing this issue from one side or the other (and from the middle) on a regular basis for the last 15 years or more. My Calvinist friends who knew me as an Arminian would tell you that back in the day I could come up with a logical argument against ANY aspect of Calvinism they brought up. And I still can, but I just don't buy them anymore. Although I can argue both sides from a logical standpoint, what I see in Scripture, overall, big picture, is God absolutely sovereign and ultimately decisive in everything - including my own salvation. That pretty much makes me a Calvinist, any way you slice it.

    I don't pretend to believe I can convince you out of your Arminianism. And you certainly won't convince me out of my Calvinism. But I pray we may both be very fruitful in service to the One whose blood purchased sinners from every tribe, and tongue, and nation. Let's faithfully serve Him with all the vigor and strength He gives us!

    And let's NOT re-hash the old debates over free will, sovereignty, election, predestination, atonement, faith, grace, etc. etc. etc. since it's not going do any good for either of us.

    Grace & peace,

  9. Derek,

    "We don't have to do the little dance."

    Nor was I attempting to. I'd hoped to understand the reasoning employed by more clear-thinking Calvinists; but if that's a problem then I'll not inquire further. God be with you.

  10. Well, I'm merely chiming in to say that I enjoyed the spirit of that discussion, although I'm certain that (for now at least) no one's mind was changed. I too pray that both of you (and me and every other true Christian) would be "very fruitful in service to the One whose blood purchased" us!


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Please be charitable. If you disagree, do so with grace. Keep your words positive, focused, and on-topic. We don't expect everyone to agree, but we do expect everyone to treat everyone else with respect and grace, speaking the truth in love.