If He Were Your Son . . .
The following letter was written in response to a Christian father whose unconverted son has fallen into the deadly error of hyper-Calvinism. In a recent letter, the father described his son as hiding behind the view that if God wants him saved, then he will be saved regardless of what he does or does not do. The father asked the editor, “If he were your son, how would you respond?”
You have raised a vitally important question. There are several levels on which it could be addressed. The two most critical that bear directly on your relationship with your son are what I would call (for lack of a better term) the principial level and the parental level. In other words, there are general principles which need to be kept in mind (which are always operating) and specific principles that apply directly to the parent-child relationship. I will focus on the former.
You asked me, “If he were your son, how would you respond?” While this question guards me against the tendency to pontificate, it also opens me up to the danger of being falsely idealistic. I don’t have a seventeen-year-old son. My oldest child is a girl who is twelve years old. I remember before I had children how easy and simple parenting seemed. It was very easy to criticize others by saying, “Well, I will never . . . .” or “When I have children, I will always do thus and so.” I have since found that God uses domestic life to humble us by showing us our weaknesses.
So, with those prefatory remarks out of the way, let me attempt an answer.
The first thing I would do would be to go back to basics. In salvation there are 2 absolute truths that seem at times to be contradictory: God is absolutely sovereign-He must do it; Man is absolutely responsible-he is culpable if it is not done. Van Til described these two truths as parallel ropes which extend down to earth from heaven. Though they appear to us never to meet, in heaven they will be seen to be one rope which is wrapped around the pulley of divine wisdom.
Because these two truths are certain, two universal principles must always be believed and applied in the area of evangelism:
1) We cannot do what must be done.
2) We must do what can be done.
The first protects us from false guilt and false despair over lost men while driving us to our knees in prayer. The second protects us from fatalistic contentment over the lost condition of men while driving us to proclaim the gospel with passion to those who are unconverted.
It is the second principle on which I would concentrate if my son had fallen into a convenient, fatalistic mind game. What can a parent do? We can certainly teach, warn, plead, exemplify, and pray.
I would do my best to explode his fatalism with the heavy artillery of Scripture, and that in two ways. First, I would attack his attitude and thinking directly. The gracious invitations in the Word along with the commands and exhortations of God provide ample ammunition for this frontal assault.
“Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:28-29). These words suggest many arguments to use against a fatalistic mindset: “Are you burdened for your sins? Are you inwardly restless? Are you concerned about your unconverted state? If so, then heed Jesus’ invitation. Come to Him. Listen to Him in His Word. Follow Him. Are you even trying to do this? Is it your desire and intention to learn from Jesus in humility and faith? Then order your life accordingly. Take advantage of every opportunity to seek the Lord and hear His word. Make it the great priority of your life.”
“Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17). I would say, “Son, do you desire salvation in Christ? If so then the Word of God instructs you to come. It does not say to come if you are sure that you are elect, or after you have figured out all of the knotty theological problems extending from God’s sovereignty. It simply says that if you desire, if you are spiritually thirsty, `Come!'”
Not only are sinners invited to come to Christ, God actually commands them to come. The very first commandment obligates everyone to be reconciled to God. “You shall have no other gods before Me.” This is the Creator’s requirement of all of His image-bearing creatures. How is this commandment obeyed? There is only one way: by trusting in Jesus Christ for salvation. Every moment that a person remains in unbelief he is living in clear disobedience to God’s will and will therefore be held accountable for his refusal to believe.
“Now God commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Regardless of what one believes and understands (or misunderstands) about God’s sovereignty, this verse unequivocally shows that everyone is under divine obligation to repent of sin. Those who hear and yet refuse to heed God’s call to repent are held accountable for their impenitence.
There are countless other texts in the Scripture which show the unmitigated obligation which sinners have to repent and believe the gospel. All of these verses must be given their proper place in your son’s thinking. It seems that he has ignored or perhaps deflated them of their significance.
Of course, this is a favorite and, unfortunately, effective strategy of Satan. He is skillful at twisting God’s words just enough that they still sound plausible though their meaning is distorted. We see this in his approach to Eve in the garden. He did not start out by directly contradicting what God had said. Rather, he misrepresented God’s words. The way Satan told it, God was holding back something wonderful and life-giving from Adam and Eve.
This is the same strategy which was employed against our Lord in the wilderness. Satan used Scriptural arguments with Jesus-but his damning selectivity was exposed by the careful, biblical responses of our Lord.
Is this not what has happened to your son? He has taken hold of only half of the truth. Your son has fallen prey to the enemy’s subtlety. I have seen this tactic used more frequently with unbelievers from the other direction. Usually, in this day and age, the mistake is found on the opposite side. Men are convinced that salvation is all up to them. Because they are responsible to repent and believe, they falsely reason that repentance and faith are in their power to exercise at will. So, “Not now,” “Tomorrow,” and “Later” are frequently on their lips when the subject is salvation.
It does not matter whether one falls into the right-hand ditch or the left-hand ditch-both are disastrous because both present part of the truth as if it were all the truth. As has been well noted, when a half truth is substituted for a whole truth it becomes a whole lie.
Along with direct application of biblical invitations and commands, I would try to warn my son of the folly of clinging to his erroneous ideas. Though there are many mistakes in his thinking, two subjects which he obviously misunderstands are at the very heart of all the others: God and himself. As Calvin says in the opening words of the Institutes, “True and substantial wisdom principally consists of two parts, the knowledge of God, and the knowledge of ourselves.” These two subjects are foundational to the biblical revelation of salvation.
Your son needs an accurate understanding of himself. He does not fully appreciate his spiritual condition if he is content to sit still. If a man were in a house that is on fire and the only way out is a door which has a lock on the outside, what would he do? It is not hard to imagine that he would pound on that door hoping that someone would hear him and save him. The fact that the lock is on the outside would not make him inactive. It should make him desperate, but if he were tempted to do nothing because of his inability to unlock the door, the heat of the fire would certainly stir him to do whatever he could to get help from outside.
Those who have imbibed in fatalism need to see the danger of their situation. The unbeliever who is not desperate has not yet seen his true condition before God. Some warn that painting the state of the unconverted too graphically will injure unbelievers and make them too afraid to trust God. Such concern, however, is wrongheaded and does not take seriously the biblical descriptions of the plight of those outside of Christ. Consider how the great revival leader, Jonathan Edwards, in his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” warned the unconverted:
The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince: and yet, it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God’s hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.
Does this misrepresent God as some kind of cosmic ogre who loves to see sinners squirm under the threat of divine wrath? Not at all! On the contrary this description simply takes seriously the sinfulness of sin before God. Unbelievers, including our children, must be told the truth about their condition before God. Why? So that they may be awakened to their desperate need of Jesus Christ.
Accurate self-understanding does not lead a sinner to passivity. If he is willing to sit back and wait to be “zapped” by divine grace, then he obviously does not yet get it. He has not seen how desperate his condition is. Bunyan captures this point very well in Hopeful’s testimony in Pilgrim’s Progress. After he was converted Hopeful understood that “by awakenings for Sin [i.e. coming to see the utter sinfulness and desperation of his condition as a sinner], God at first begins the Conversion of a Sinner.”
For Hopeful, this awakening came gradually until he finally realized that he was completely guilty before God for his sins. His great problem became how to escape the damnation that his sins deserved. When instructed to go to Christ, Hopeful at first thought that it was presumptuous and he feared that God was not willing to save him. But his friend Faithful continued to plead with him to go to Christ. Though he was not immediately converted, Hopeful did not stop seeking Christ.
Carefully consider Hopeful’s testimony-especially as he explains why he did not give up seeking the Lord:
Christian And did you do as you were bidden?
Hope. Yes; over and over, and over.
Christian. And did the Father reveal his Son to you?
Hope. Not at the first, nor second, nor third, nor fourth, nor fifth; no, nor at the sixth time neither.
Christian. What did you do then?
Hope. What! why I could not tell what to do.
Christian. Had you not thoughts of leaving off Praying?
Hope. Yes; an hundred times twice told.
Christian. And what was the reason you did not?
Hope. I believed that that was true, which had been told me, to wit, That without the Righteousness of this Christ, all the World could not save me; and therefore thought I with myself, if I leave off, I die, and I can but die at the Throne of Grace. And withal this came into my mind, If it tarry, wait for it, because it will surely come, and will not tarry. I continued Praying, until the Father shewed me his Son.
Hopeful’s sense of desperation did not make him idle! It made him willing to die at the foot of God’s throne, begging for mercy and grace. Of course, he did not die there-and no one ever has or ever will. But, he came to see that his need was so great, his condition so desperate, that he was willing to die seeking salvation. This what the Lord meant when He said, “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13).
The other error that I would focus on is my son’s misunderstanding of God. The point which is too often missed in Edwards’ sermon (and the point which must be driven home to your son) is that God is incredibly gracious and patient to withhold His judgment from His enemies who so justly deserve immediate condemnation. “Do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). The unconverted must come to see that the fact they are still alive is a testimony to God’s patience and grace.
There is a great need for careful balance here if the biblical revelation of God’s character is to be faithfully upheld. Edwards does this marvelously well in his famous sermon, though, as I have already mentioned, many modern readers miss it. Edwards is telling the truth when he says to unbelievers,
The bow of God’s wrath is bent, and the arrow made ready on the string, and justice bends the arrow at your heart, and strains the bow, and it is nothing but the mere pleasure of God, and that of an angry God, without any promise or obligation at all, that keeps the arrow one moment from being made drunk with your blood.
God is “angry with the wicked everyday” and He does prepare the sword and arrows of His wrath for them (Psalm 7:11-13). His wrath does presently abide on all those who live in unbelief (John 3:36). He is too holy to look on evil and wickedness (Hab. 1:13). God’s holiness, wrath, justice and judgment must never be eclipsed in our teaching or thinking about God. But neither must these dimensions of His character be allowed to overshadow His mercy, grace, goodness, and gentleness.
After all, God is withholding the execution of His wrath with every new breath which he puts into his enemies’ nostrils. This is the point that, in one sense, is the theme of Edwards’ sermon: the emphasis is not so much on God’s holy anger as it is on His gracious hand! What an amazingly gracious God He is not to immediately destroy His enemies and cast them into hell! Even more amazing, is the awesome fact that this God, our God, has actually loved sinners and given His Son for our redemption. I would talk much to my son about the mercy and grace that are revealed in Jesus Christ. How can anyone look at the cross and doubt the love and goodness of God? I would encourage my son to believe the truth-the whole truth-about God. God does not play games with us. Though He is holy, He is not harsh. He does not hold the apple of salvation in front of us only to snatch it away when we reach for it.
Well, my letter has run much longer than I anticipated, and I have not even addressed the “parental level.” With your permission, I will leave that for another time.
I do not want to close, however, without adding one brief comment on prayer. In my own pleadings with God for my children I derive much comfort and motivation from recognizing that He uses means in the accomplishment of His gracious purposes. “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom 10:17). If the Lord intends to save someone He is going to get His word to them. In His infinite wisdom He has given my children to parents are committed to teaching them His Word. He could have given them to other parents, or He could have left their parents unconverted. But He chose to give them to us, and by His grace, Donna and I are teaching them the gospel.
This providential fact provides no grounds for presumption (i.e. “because they are my children they will inevitably be saved”), but it does provide a solid foundation for hope. Why would He give them to parents who love their souls and who pray for them and try to teach them if He does not intend to save them? I am not suggesting that that question has no answer, but I am saying that the fact that God uses means and has chosen to bring those means to my children encourages me greatly to pray and work for their salvation.
One of my favorite stories from church history has to do with Augustine and his mother, Monica. As she watched her son go unabashedly into a life of sin, she became increasingly consumed with his conversion. When Augustine became ensnared by a deadly philosophical heresy, Monica nearly wore out her pastor, Ambrose, with her continual petitions to him to talk to her son. Finally, Ambrose grew weary of seeing her and said, “Leave me and go in peace. It cannot be that the son of such tears should be lost.”
Looking back on that period of his mother’s travail for his soul, Augustine wrote to God in his Confessions,
But you sent down your help from above and rescued my soul from the depth of this darkness because my mother, your faithful servant, wept to you for me, shedding more tears for my spiritual death than other mothers shed for the bodily death of a son. For in her faith and in the spirit which she had from you she looked on me as dead. You heard her and did not despise the tears which streamed down and watered the earth in every place where she bowed her head in prayer.
I am sure that you agree that we must never cease praying for our children. As long as there is breath, there is hope.
May the Lord grant that your burden for your son’s salvation should never end until you see Christ being formed in him. Be assured that you both are in my prayers.