Sunday, October 10, 2010

Does Matthew 23:37 teach "resistible grace"?

In discussing issues of soteriology, many resort to asserting the meaning of certain scriptures without offering a Biblical exegesis of the text which is being presented. We all can be guilty of this, so it is important to give a solid interpretation of specific scriptures in light of it's context. One of the big passages that comes up in a discussion of freedom and salvation is Matthew 23:37, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were unwilling." Many look to this passage as a proof text for the doctrine of "resistible grace." That is, that Jesus can offer saving grace to some who will ultimately reject it, and frustrate His purposes in trying to save them. Some see "Jerusalem" and "your children," as individual Jews who are rejecting the saving grace of Christ. As we will see, the context of this passage suggests nothing of the sort. It is amazing that those who promote this position will often miss quote this passage,"... how often I wanted to gather you...," changing "your children" to "you." Due to presuppositional bias, this passage is interpreted to fit a certain understanding about freedom and salvation. The understanding being that Jesus is trying to save them but they were unwilling and so Jesus can't save them now, because man will not allow Him. This is what is called "synergism," the idea that God is dependent on the human will to save. But is this really what Jesus is saying here? Context, like I said, is key.

In Matthew chapter 23 while speaking to the crowds and His disciples, Jesus rips into the scribes and Pharisees for the entirety of the chapter. Jesus announces 7 woes over the leadership of Israel. One of the woes is that the leadership of Israel throughout it's history continually shuts out the kingdom of heaven from the people V.13, "But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in," a theme that is parallel to V.37. When Jesus rebukes "Jerusalem," he is rebuking the leaders of Israel. Prophets were sent to the leaders of Israel, and consequently it is the leaders who kill the prophets who were sent to them. This is what the Pharisees were doing by trying to hinder the message of Jesus. They were shutting out the kingdom of heaven from the children they were supposed to be leading. The phrase "your children," is referring to the people under the leadership of Israel, the Pharisees. In this passage it isn't the "children" who are "not willing", it is the leaders. Throughout the ministry of Christ the leaders were doing everything they could to hinder Jesus and His message. The common people flocked to see Jesus and hear His teaching, but the Pharisees tried desperately to obstruct the progress of Christ and His ministry. Therefore Matthew 23:13, and V.37, are judgment passages directed towards the leaders of the people Israel for obstructing Jesus' ministry. They are not passages that teach man's free will to resist the "effectual grace" of God in salvation. In fact, the specific inner work of the Spirit of God which draws men to salvation is not in view here.

But are we surprised that the Pharisees tried to shut out Jesus and His message? Especially given the 5th woe in Matthew 23:25-26, that they are clean outwardly but their hearts are darkened on the inside? Of course they are unwilling, as sons of Adam they are radically enslaved to a corrupt nature. Listen to the word of our Lord in John 8:43-44, "Why do you not understand what I am saying? It is because you cannot hear My word. You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies." How can fallen man turn to the truth of God if he can't even hear it? As children of the devil, fallen sinners are free to do what is natural to them, lie and reject God. John 8:32, "and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." John 8: 34, "... everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin." If we are all free to accept and reject God at our leisure then what are we being set free from here? As slaves to sin, sinners cannot choose anything outside of their nature. Jesus has to set sinners free so they can hear his word. John 8:36, " So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed." Jesus is telling the people that they cannot hear Him because they are not free. They are children of the devil and enslaved to sin.

The unwillingness of the Pharisees doesn't show that God is dependent on them, in fact it leads us straight to the doctrine of "total depravity." It points to the condition of fallen humanity. Unless God shows mercy on the fallen sinner's heart, he will always be unwilling. We know what happens at the end; Jesus conquers death and secures the salvation of His bride. The unwillingness of the leaders of Israel didn't hinder Jesus. Jesus doesn't try, He accomplishes.

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