“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”
This verse shows that people don’t believe in Jesus because they “choose to,” but because God allows them to have faith. Paul was telling the Christians in Philippi they only believed because God decided to save them. They weren’t elected by God because they believed, but because of God’s unconditional election they were allowed to believe. This verse teaches irresistible grace, and strongly implies unconditional election.
This is an example of one of Calvinism’s most common contextual errors. Most of the primary passages used to defend the doctrines of irresistible grace and unconditional election fall into this category. Reformed theology seems to be completely ignorant about the Jewish/Gentile controversy that rocked the Church in the first century A.D. Many of the New Testament writings deal exclusively with this controversy, and most of them refer to it in some way or another. We began discussing this issue in the post entitled, “5 Questions about Predestination – Why?”
The Jews had waited a long time for their Messiah. They had come to assume that once he arrived he would lead the nation of Israel into an era of political domination over the Roman Empire and all the nations under its power. But God surprised them by sending a Savior for the whole world. Instead of rejoicing in the mercy of God and the good fortune of mankind, they rejected Jesus. This caused Jesus to weep over Jerusalem, but it did not change his plan to offer salvation to the whole world. Jesus commanded his Apostles to make disciples in all nations. And though it took them a few years to catch on to God’s love for non-Jews, by the middle of the first century A.D. the evangelization of the Gentile nations was well underway. By the end of that century, there were more Gentile disciples of Christ than there were Jewish believers in the Messiah Jesus.
The controversy reaches a climax in Acts 15. Many of the Jewish believers were convinced that Gentiles could not be true disciples of Christ without becoming full-fledged members of the Jewish people. They believed that the only way a Gentile could become a member of Israel was though accepting the Jewish tradition of circumcision. Their argument was that in order to become one of Abraham’s people you had to receive his sign of circumcision. The Apostles argued that in the New Covenant connection with Christ (i.e. the “Seed” of Abraham) through faith was the means of becoming a legitimate member of God’s covenant people. They argued that it was Abraham’s faith not his circumcision that determined who God’s people were.
Many of Paul’s letters deal with the subject of how God’s elect people were to be defined and how one could become a legitimate member of that holy people. Many of the churches he wrote to were dealing with some form of this controversy. Could Gentiles be Christians without becoming Jews? Is circumcision or faith the sign of the New Covenant? Why were Gentiles receiving the Gospel while the majority of Jews were rejecting it? The Philippian congregation was not exempt from this controversy.
In Acts 16:11-15 we see the beginning of the church in Philippi. Paul would usually begin his outreach in the local synagogue. But Philippi had a very small Jewish population, so Paul and his entourage looked for a place where Jews gathered for prayer outside the city. It was here that they met Lydia and led her to the Lord. According to tradition ten Jewish men were required for the opening of a synagogue. The fact that Philippi didn’t have one speaks about just how rare Jews were in that region.
Another clue we have about the primarily Gentile population in Philippi is found in Acts 16:19-24. A virtual riot ensued after the Apostles delivered a psychic slave girl from demons. Her owner became furious that she could no longer make him money, so he stirred up the crowds and arrested Paul and Silas. When they dragged them before the judge they said, “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city. They advocate customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to accept or practice” (vs. 20-21). Form this we can conclude biblically that the church in Philippi was a primarily Gentile congregation.
When we look at the letter to the Philippians we will find Paul referencing the controversy surrounding circumcision. In Philippians 3:2-3 we read Paul warning the congregation to avoid the false teaching of those who say that one has to become a Jew through circumcision in order to find salvation in Christ. “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.”
So what does this have to do with a proper understanding of Philippians 1:29? Calvinism comes from its normal Western point of view and immediately applies this verse to the individual members of the Philippian church. Those that hold that doctrine assume that God has individually selected which people he wanted to save in Philippi. But as they often do with verses written to congregations, they forget that God is talking to a corporate body. And they also forget to take into account the situation of the congregation Paul is writing to. Paul is talking to a Gentile congregation that is caught in the middle of the Jewish/Gentile controversy of the early church. So Paul is seeking to reassure them that they are legitimate members of God’s holy people. He wants them to know that they are not guilty of “party crashing” God’s kingdom; they had been graciously invited in by the King himself. Paul is saying, “God has granted you Philippians, as representatives of the Gentile nations, entry into the Messianic hope of Israel.” He is communicating the same thing he did to the Gentiles in Ephesus, “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
Jesus said that during his earthly ministry he had “come for the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24). When Jesus sent his Apostles out on their first ministry tour he told them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 105-6). Peter confirms that Jesus came to save the nation of Israel on the day of Pentecost when he said, “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). No one was surprised that God had granted repentance to Israel. Note that though God had sent Jesus to “give repentance to Israel” most of the nation had not come to repentance. So God “giving repentance” to them cannot be interpreted as God drawing them by irresistible grace. It simply means that God sent Jesus with the purpose of leading Israel to repentance and the forgiveness of sins by offering them salvation in Christ. God’s desire for them would not be fulfilled without them obeying the command to repent. God was giving, but they had to receive. John confirms this when he wrote, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11-12). Their rejection was not the will of God as Jesus grief over them shows, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem …. How often I wanted to gather your children together the way a hen gathers her chicks under her wings! But you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37 – GWT)
God granting repentance to Israel had long been expected. Jesus’ focus on the Jewish nation during his earthly ministry was not considered strange in the least by his disciples. They were happy to limit their outreach to their own nation; they surely had little desire to preach to the “Samaritan half-breeds” or the “Gentiles dogs”! So it is no wonder they didn’t jump at the chance to extend their ministry when Jesus told them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15 – NIV). But eventually God nudged them into the world by compelling Peter through a supernatural vision to preach to the Gentile household of Cornelius (Acts 15). After the conversion of this family Peter had to go to the Christians in Jerusalem and defend his outreach to Gentiles. Those that thought non-Jews had to become Jews to be saved criticized him (Acts 11:1-3). But Peter told all the Jewish believers about his vision, the response of Cornelius’ family, and the pouring out of the Spirit of God upon that Gentile family. “When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18). God did not only come to save the Jewish nation, but also to save the Gentiles. That included the Gentiles that lived in Philippi! It was for this reason that Paul could write, “For it has been granted [by God] to you [Gentiles] that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe [and repent unto salvation] but also suffer for his sake” (Phil. 1:29).
1 Thessalonians 1:4-5a
“For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.”
2 Thessalonians 2:13-14
But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth. To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In these verses in first and second Thessalonians Reformed Theology once again ignores the context of the racial controversy in the early church and assumes the Paul was trying to imply the doctrines of unconditional election and irresistible grace. They give Paul this meaning, “We are sure those individuals hearing this letter read to the congregation were unconditionally elected by God from the foundation of the world because your conversion was so powerful due to the irresistible grace of God.”
By now we recognize the first error made in such an interpretation, namely, that Paul is speaking to particular individuals instead of a particular congregation. Paul is not saying that each person listening to the letter was unconditionally predestined for salvation. He is telling the congregation in Thessalonica that they were corporately chosen.
The word “chosen” was filled with implications for a Jewish rabbi like Paul. Until the coming of Christ and the spread of the Gospel Jewish teachers would never dream of applying this word to Gentiles. But Paul’s perspective had changed after he came to Christ. He knew that this mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles needed to be reminded of their chosen status in the Messiah. He wanted to reaffirm to them that they were the “Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). He wanted to urge them to unity by reminding them that “neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal. 6:15). As a mixed congregation he wanted them to remember that they were not second-class citizens in God’s kingdom because “there is neither Jew nor Greek … for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28-29).
In order to convince them that they were truly God’s people he reminded them that they didn’t come to Christ because of Paul’s persuasive arguments, but by responding to the convicting power of God. They could be sure that Paul wasn’t the only one offering them salvation in Christ, but God himself had been active in drawing them to Christ. Paul was telling them the same thing he had taught the church in Rome, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8:16). They needn’t doubt that they really belonged to God. Paul was convinced that God had accepted this multi-racial congregation. In order to encourage them he used the same reasoning Peter had used when defending his ministry to Cornelius’ family in Acts chapter 11, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them” (vs. 15). “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (vs. 17) Paul told the multi-racial congregation of Thessalonica, “You are part of God’s chosen people, it doesn’t matter what your cultural background is, you belong to God. Remember, it wasn’t just us offering you eternal life, God himself convicted your hearts, this is proof that he has invited you to be among his elect people.”
Paul goes further in 2 Thessalonians 2:13-14 and tells them not only that they are God’s people, but how they became God’s people. They became part of God’s chosen people “through belief in the truth.” This truth came to them when they heard the Gospel because “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). This was not decided on a whim by God’s part, for “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Gal. 3:8). Paul wanted to “bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God” (Eph. 3:9). This mystery, that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” is what Paul wanted the Thessalonians to be clear about. He wanted them to be sure that they were no longer “alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise” (Eph. 2:12). They could be certain that they were “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). They were “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9).
When we come to the verses that are usually used to defend Calvinism, it is interesting to note how many are firmly rooted in the context of the Jewish/Gentile controversy of the early church. The question in Romans chapter 9 is, “Why are Gentiles receiving the Gospel and being received as God’s people, while a large percentage of the Jewish people are rejecting and being rejected?” In Ephesians chapter 1 Paul defends God’s inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s chosen people by revealing that the Church of Christ, consisting of both Jews and Gentiles, was chosen long before the nation of Israel. And in John chapter 6 (chapters 5-8) Jesus points out that those who receive him are the true children of Abraham, not those who merely have Abraham’s blood flowing through their veins. By ignoring this important historical context of the early church Calvinism has come to false conclusions about what these passages and many others are teaching. If the disciple hopes to avoid the errors of Calvinism he must not read the claims of Reformed Theology into the Bible, but read each passage of scripture in its historical context.
Note: This is part 1 of a 3 part series. To read part 2 click here.