Why does God rejoice in saving sinners? This was the question I received from a friend not too long ago. As he reflected on God’s joy in salvation (particularly from the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15) it seemed to him that God would have greater joy in salvation if he did not choose those whom he was going to save from eternity past. In this thinking, if God chooses those whom he is going to save before he creates anything (Eph. 1:3-14) then his joy is necessarily reduced and maybe even eliminated since he already knows who is coming to him. So if we know that God rejoices in the salvation of sinners (which we find in Luke 15:7, 10) then doesn’t this mean that the idea of God choosing some for salvation – which, in this thinking, would limit and possibly even negate God’s joy – mean that Calvinism is wrong and Arminianism is right?
Instead of answering this question all in one long post I have decided to “eat the elephant” – if you will – one bite at a time. So I plan to answer this question in parts over the next few posts as time allows.
So why don’t we take our first bite out that proverbial elephant now? The idea implied in the criticism of the doctrine of election is that God’s joy is contingent or at least dependent in some way upon him not knowing our response to the invitation of the gospel. But if this is the case then it is clear that the Arminian teaching of conditional election doesn’t really help us at all. The doctrines of grace (often called Calvinism) teach that God chooses some on the basis of his mercy and grace alone and all for his glory. The Arminian understanding is that God chooses some on the basis of his knowing in advance who will freely choose him. Whether you are a Calvinist or an Arminian you can probably already see the problem. Both sides in this debate agree that God knows in advance who will come to him by faith. Both sides eliminate the element of surprise and of the unknown.
There is however another position, outside the bounds of historic Christianity and Scripture, that teaches that God, in fact, does not know the future. This position is called Open Theism. It takes the philosophical position (not the biblical one) that humans have the power of absolute self-determination. What this means is that God has no control over what anyone does and because we are all absolutely free from God’s providence we create the future as we make choices. So, because the future doesn’t exist unless we create it (with our absolutely free choices), God cannot know our (or anyone’s) future.
It is only in this view of Open Theism that God could be surprised by our response. This position is so clearly outside the bounds of what the Bible really teaches, however, that I will not take the time to deal with it at this point.
Part of the problem, it seems, is that this view (that God’s joy in salvation is in any way dependent on the element of the unknown) reduces God to being little more than like any one of us. And since so much of our joy is bound up with the element of surprise we have a hard time imagining a God who can’t be surprised and yet still knows real and boundless joy. But this ignores the reality that not all our joy – maybe not even most of it or the best of it – comes without the element of surprise. Yes there is a lot of joy when we are surprised by the ending of a movie or book. But I have watched the old movie “Rudy” so many times and it never gets old. I have read some books repeatedly and yet my appreciation and joy of them has grown deeper and deeper. I have watched my football team, the Eagles, win a game and still felt the need to read about it and watch the highlights. Yes I have enjoyed being surprised in the past at a birthday party. But I have enjoyed even more the anticipation of a birthday party I knew was coming all along. I have even had great joy in planning the surprise party for others. There are so many different kinds and degrees of rejoicing and joy that to say real joy is dependent on ignorance is true only if one ignores the evidence.
God, because of his infinite knowledge and presence, is never surprised. But I don’t think that mitigates his joy in any way. In fact I think it deepens it. He is never surprised by anything but always planning surprises for others. He is never ignorant of the end of the story and so he is able to take great joy in every little twist and turn because he knows how it turns out. Indeed, he is the one who is doing the twisting and turning to make it come to the end he designs!
Make no mistake, God takes great joy in saving sinners. But that joy is not dependent in any way upon ignorance. We will explore this theme in the posts to come.