While we were yet sinners

I’d like to offer an open view take on two passages never considered by any open theist writer I know of. All the familiar passages used in defense of open theism are pretty familiar, but these two passages aren’t among them. I’ve read these for years as at least implying a partly open future.

Romans 5.8 — “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” It’s obvious enough from 5.8 that God’s love for us is demonstrated in the Cross. You can’t get a more radical demonstration of such love. But then Paul adds a curious qualification we’re invited to ponder, and that qualifying phrase is “while we were yet sinners.” How does this phrase function with respect to the demonstration of God’s love in the Cross? It’s not just that Christ’s death for us demonstrates God’s love. The complete thought is that his death for us “while we were yet sinners” demonstrates his love. How so?

This is particularly difficult to appreciate on either of the traditional views of foreknowledge (determinism or traditional simple-foreknowledge). If, following theological determinism, God has always chosen precisely who is to respond and who is not to respond, and if the atoning efficacy of Christ’s death is virtuous only for the elect, then there remains no sense in which his having died for us “while we were sinners” uniquely qualifies his death is a demonstration of love. If God predetermines who comes to faith and Christ only dies for those elect who are foreknown, then therein is the love of God revealed, not in the fact that he died for us “while we were yet sinners.” What we are “when” he dies makes no difference if God knows when he dies precisely who he has elected and what the outcomes are. But if God dies for sinners without guarantee or foreknowledge of any change in the status of particular individuals, then the fact that he died “while we were sinners” is indeed a demonstration of love.

Similarly on the traditional Orthodox and Arminian understandings of foreknowledge, God always knows precisely who chooses and who doesn’t, who responds to God’s love and who doesn’t. On this understanding of foreknowledge God embraces the Cross with this knoweledge in mind. That entirely relativizes the fact that people are sinners “when Christ died.” Foreknowledge precedes and informs the Cross. So there would be no perceivable sense in which his dying for us “while we were sinners” would qualify or enhance or clarify the manner in which Christ’s death demonstrates God’s love. How is that love demonstrated in dying for us “while we are sinners” if it’s the case that God knows precisely who remains sinners and who comes to faith? The fact that “we are sinners” when Christ dies would matter little to a God who suffers knowing the outcome of faith for all persons.

Note, I’m not saying that dying for those you know are positively affected by your sacrifice is no love at all. I’m just saying that in such cases it would add or prove nothing to argue the especially loving nature of the sacrifice from the fact that it was made “while those for whom it was made were estranged from love.”

imagesCA7DF51ERomans 9.10-13 — “Not only that, but Rebekah’s children were conceived at the same time by our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls—she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” The same logic applies to Paul’s reasoning regarding the unconditional nature of God’s choice of Jacob over Esau. How does Paul establish his claim that God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was not conditional upon the actions of either child? Easy. He simply shows that God made the choice while they were still in Rachel’s womb before they had done anything good or bad. The timing of God’s choice, Paul reasons, proves that the choice was not based on the actions of either. But this logic falls apart once we admit the traditional view of foreknowledge, for such a view holds that while the twins were in their mother’s womb God was cognizant of all their future actions. True, this doesn’t prove that God did base his choice on foreknowledge of their actions. It might be that God was truly indifferent to his knowledge of their future choices in choosing Jacob freely. But the logic of Paul’s argument would still fail, for it is Paul’s conviction that the unconditional nature of God’s choice is proven by the timing of the choice. But the timing of the choice doesn’t prove anything regarding the unconditional nature of the choice if it’s also the case that at the time of the choice God knows all the choices in question. A God who knows the future choices of the twins wouldn’t need to wait until after those choices had been made if he wanted to make his preference for Jacob over Esau dependent upon those choices. He has those choices in mind when they’re in the womb. That’s the problem. However, if those choices aren’t fixed in God’s mind when the twins are in the womb, if their futures are “open” and God knows this, then Paul’s logic follows—choosing one over the other while they’re in the womb does indeed prove the unconditional nature of the choice.

(Pictures here and here.)

2 comments on “While we were yet sinners

  1. Rob Parris - Asher says:

    Nicely done!


    • tgbelt says:

      The point made with respect to Rm 5.8 is all the more apparent if vv. 6-7 are considered first: “6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die.” These anticipate v. 8. Under what conditions do people give their lives for another? Very rarely will someone die for a righteous or good person? Why? Because we look to justify our sacrifice, and we seek that justification in the worth of or in the effect which our death shall have upon those for whom we die. We die for good and righteous persons because in our estimation they will give a return on our investment; i.e., they will bring it to pass that we shall not have died in vain. But Paul CONTRASTS this kind of dying for others with the kind of sacrifice made in the Cross. Christ’s death, he says, is NOT like this. He dies for us “while we are sinners” and in this his love is the more demonstrated. But if the reigning traditional view of foreknowledge is true, then it’s very difficult (if not impossible) to uphold this contrast and say Christ’s death is unlike these.


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