In Acts 17 the Apostle Paul addresses the philosophers at Mars Hill. I want to look at a couple comments that I find very interesting concerning the issue of total depravity and inability as trumped by Calvinism. I will also make a comment concerning the emphasis on God’s sovereignty and omniscience that drive the Calvinist tenets.
In verse 22 we read, “Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; 23 for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you:”
It is interesting that Paul is here addressing a group of educated pagans who are “religious folk.” In the courtyard, they had erected statues to all kinds of gods and even had one to “the unknown god” to appease one they may have not known about. This is an interesting comment seeing that apart from God’s effectual calling, no one will “seek God.” These educated men knew that there was a god. Unlike the educated folk today, they made a place for gods in their lives. It still seems a little odd to me that a theological position could ignore men’s long standing effort to KNOW GOD and then deny his ability to respond to the God of the Bible apart from some special grace on God’s part. I will leave that statement at that. Paul says, this unknown God is the One I want to “proclaim to you.” In Paul’s mind, there is no idea of effectual calling or special grace that enables any of them to be miraculously saved; he believes that the proclamation of the Word can save them all if they will respond in repentance and believing faith.
He introduces this unknown God as the Creator of the world and everything in it. This God does not live in statues or manmade edifices like the temple. He made every person from one blood; one family and God has the boundaries of their being for one reason; verse 27, “that they should seek THE LORD (not some pagan god) in hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any of us.”
This statement is more than interesting because Paul is clearly saying in this message to a group of lost pagans, that they are where they are so that they might seek the Lord in hopes that they MIGHT find Him. This statement made by the Apostle Paul clearly debunks the whole concept of total depravity and inability and the necessity of regeneration prior to repentance and believing faith. Paul is telling these learned men that they are in a place in their lives where they might seek God and find Him. The proclamation of the gospel has power to save those who respond favorably to the promises made in it by God Himself. This is the essence of what Paul is preaching to the philosophers in Athens.
In the earlier verses of chapter 17, Paul preached Jesus in Thessalonica and verse 4 says, “some were persuaded.” This is also an interesting choice of words. Paul and Silas moved on to Berea where it is said that these folks “were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so. 12 Therefore many of them believed, and also not a few of the Greeks, prominent women as well as men.” (VV11-12) The question is, were they “more fair-minded” because they were regenerated or because they were willing to listen to Paul and Silas’ preaching to be moved by the power of the spoken Word? Regeneration cannot be the case because they “searched the Scriptures” to find out for themselves if the things Paul had been preaching was true or not. Had they been regenerated enabling them to search the truth, they would have repented instead of searched the Scriptures. One thing is true about calvinism’s regeneration; it cannot be a progressive move. When one is effectually called, he repents. One cannot be gradually called to “new life.” So, one of two things had to be true. One, regeneration as posited by Calvinism is not supported by this passage or Paul’s statement here is theologically inaccurate. These new believers heard the gospel and searched the Scriptures to verify the accuracy of the claims being presented. If they heard and had the desire to search the Scriptures, then they had to have been regenerated in the Calvinist system; if that were the case they would have repented instead of having to search. This is completely inconsistent with the total depravity/inability position.
Notice Paul’s statement in verse 29: “29 Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.” Paul talks about “God’s Divine nature.” He does not talk about God’s sovereignty; he does not speak about God’s omniscience; he speaks of God’s Divine nature. This is important because God’s sovereignty is an attribute of His divinity. God’s omniscience is an attribute of His divinity. He is not divine because He is sovereign or omniscient; He is sovereign and omniscient because He is divine. I believe this points to one of the more serious problems shaping the academic theological landscape. Instead of building theology based on God’s Divine nature, most have focused on His sovereignty and omniscience to frame the foundation from which they have built their cases.
Why is this distinction important? It is important because focusing on a particular attribute can give a false picture of the whole entity. For example, a man can be a father; he can be an employer and he can also be a gambler and a drunkard. If one focuses on the father and employer. One might think “this guy is a great guy.” If one focuses on the drunkard and gambler, one might think, “Wow this guy is a real loser.” The problem ought to be obvious; neither conclusion is necessarily accurate and the conclusion drawn is clearly determined by the attributes considered. All attributes accurately describe the man but obviously give very differing perspectives.
Is it possible to focus on God’s sovereignty or His omniscience and “miss God’s Divine nature completely?” If God is sovereign and omniscient BECAUSE He is Divine, then perhaps focusing on individual attributes may indeed give one a false picture of God’s total Divine nature and ultimately His total character and being. I believe this to be true where the majority of academic theological discussion stands. God is more than sovereign or omniscient. He is perhaps more than anything, love. (Ps. 118:1; I John 4:8,16) God is Holy. (Is 43:3; 6:3; I Peter 1:16) He is Merciful. (Deut. 4:31; Ps 103:8, 116:5; Eph. 2:4) He is Perfect in all He does. (2 Sam. 22:31;Ps. 18:30; Matt 5:48) He is Faithful. (Deut. 7-9, 32:4, Ro. 4:21; I Cor. 1:9, 10:13) He is Sovereign,(Gen.1:1; I Chron. 29:11-12; Ps. 115:3; Lam. 3:37; Eph. 1:11) Omnipotent,(Jere. 32:27; Is 40:28; Matt. 19:26; Luke 1:37; Heb.1:3) Omniscient, (Job 3:16, 28:24; I Sam. 2:3; Ps. 147:5; Matt. 10:30; I John 3:19-20) and Immutable, (Job 23:13; Mal. 3:6; Heb. 6:17) a God of Wrath, (Zeph. 1:14-15, 18; Ps. 69:24; Rom. 1:18; Heb. 12:29; Rev. 19:15) A God of Grace (I Cor. 15:10; Eph. 2:8; Titus 2:11) and this is not an exhaustible list. 2 Peter 3:19 clearly states, “The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” This passage reflects God’s Divine nature and clearly stands as one of the more problematic passages in the total depravity/inability and limited atonement tenets presented by Calvinism.
Consider verses 30 Paul tells these religious educated philosophers, “God has overlooked men’s ignorance as seen in their use of statues but now God commands all men everywhere to repent.” Repentance is man’s response to the gospel message that says God “31 has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” In verse 34, Paul says, “some joined him and believed.”
The truth is simple. If total depravity and inability are correct there are a couple of things that are problematic in the passage. First of all, the new believers in Thessalonica and Berea do not fit the regeneration before repentance and faith model presented by the Calvinist system. Second, in Paul’s address to the men in Athens, they should seek THE LORD (not some pagan god) in hopes that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any of us.” There is no hint of depravity or inability to be overcome by regeneration. In fact, God is “near them all” Paul says indicating that He is also accessible to those who would repent and believe, which some did.