I ended my last post with the bold assertion that Calvin got Paul’s understanding of salvation right. The claim is somewhat ridiculous; no single interpreter has captured the full contours of Paul’s (or any other biblical writer’s) theology. So let me explain what I mean.
After studying Paul’s’ understanding of salvation and comparing his view with that of the Essenes (as reflected in the Dead Sea Scrolls), it seems rather clear to me that Paul emphasized the priority of God’s agency more consistently and thoroughly than any other ancient writings of his day. And inasmuch as John Calvin emphasized this too, I think he was correct.
Let me be more specific. In the first century, Jewish people knew the nation of Israel still stood under the curse of the covenant for (continually) breaking the law (Deut 28; Lev 26). The covenant that God made with the nation on Sinai, in other words, ended in failure (see Jer 11), and Jewish people living in the days of Jesus knew it. “So how do we fix it?” they wondered. “How do we get right with God?” For most Jews, they would say that we “repent and return to the law.” After all, isn’t this exactly what Deuteronomy says (Deut 4:29-31; 30:1-10)?
Well, yes it does, but Deuteronomy (and the Prophets) also says that people have hard hearts (Deut 29:4) and simply can’t return to God under their own power. No matter how loud the prophets preached, no matter how many curses God rained down, people simply cannot repent and turn to God. “If a leopard can change its spots,” says Jeremiah, “then you too can do who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23). Or in the words of Paul, “there is no one who seeks after God, no, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12). We are all dead as a doornail and cannot turn to God unless God first turns to us and declares us to be righteous even though we are wicked (Rom 4:4-5; 5:8-11). God must create faith in us and must cause us to obey if we are going to be in a right relationship with Him.
“Wait a minute,” you might say. “Cause us to obey? That’s taking things a little too far.”
But this is exactly what Ezekiel promised and what Paul believes took place through Calvary and Pentecost. God caused you to believe, repent, and then obey. Deep into the Old Testament, Ezekiel promised that God would “put His Spirit within you and cause you to walk in His commandments” (36:27). And for the few of you who care, the Hebrew word asah is in the hifil, which emphasizes causation. In fact, such radical emphasis on divine agency floods Ezekiel’s entire prophecy in chapters 36-37 and becomes a vital Old Testament text for our New Testament understanding of salvation. For instance, Jesus, Paul, and others often talk about the “Spirit that gives life,” or the “Spirit of life” (Rom 8:1-11; 2 Cor 3:3-6; John 6:63), and when they do, they are thinking of Ezekiel’s radical emphasis on divine agency being fulfilled in their midst. Not only did Ezekiel promise that the Spirit would cause God’s people to obey, but in Ezekiel 37 he promised that the same Spirit would breathe life into dead bones that were very dry. This “dry bones vision” becomes a paradigm, in the NT, for how God saves people. He unilaterally (i.e., by Himself) breathes life into them.
Leopards don’t change their spots, dead bones can’t manufacture life, and you didn’t turn to God. God turned to you.
All that to say, Paul emphasized the priority of divine agency in salvation. Since we are utterly depraved and incapable of turning to God, God must take the initiative to unilaterally infuse us with faith, obedience, and Spirit-generated life.
Now, you Calvinists may wonder what all the hub-bub is about. Nothing I’ve said is all that original, nor is it much different than what you can learn from any Systematic theology class (at some schools, anyway). But what I have discovered from studying the Dead Sea Scrolls is that Paul’s decided emphasis on divine agency in salvation was unparalleled in first century Judaism. Interestingly, even the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, did not underscore God’s agency in salvation as comprehensively and intricately as Paul. And—this is important—of all the Jews in the first century, the Essenes were the so-called “hyper Calvinists” of the ancient world. According to Josephus, they believed that God controls everything, and yet according to their own writings, even they don’t emphasize God’s work in salvation to the same degree as Paul.
So, writing academic books can be water to the soul, believe it or not. Because when I woke up this morning, I wasn’t the best father, I was inadequate as a husband, and I fell far short of being a “good Christian.” But God still loves me just the same, because His love is dictated not by what I do but by what Christ has done. And this unconditioned, unilateral, one-way love that we call “grace” is not just a Christianeze buzz word, but the controlling and life-sustaining power that transforms us from offensive enemies to real ingredients of divine joy.