Previous article in this series: September 1, 2006, p. 460.
In our controversy with those who would promote the free or well-meant offer of the gospel (WMO), we turn now to a few texts that clearly indicate that while God calls believers to express one attitude towards their neighbors (one of love), God’s attitude towards those same neighbors may be quite the opposite. We have in mind passages such as Romans 12:20;Proverbs 25:21, 22; and Proverbs 24:17, 18 (to be quoted later).
We do this in response to the assertion of the WMO men that, since Scripture clearly calls us to love all with whom we have contact, even our enemies, thereby showing ourselves to be children of our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:43ff.), we must therefore conclude that God also has a love for all men. Our love for all and sundry is but a reflection of His love for all and sundry. And this, say the promoters of the WMO, must be preached; for this is what belongs to the very “marrow of divinity” (that is, to the core of gospel preaching in its deepest emotional appeals and “beseechings” to the unsaved—”God loves you. Christ has died for you”). And this from Reformed and Calvinistic pulpits.
In opposition to this rank Arminianism foisted upon the gospel, we respond that, while it is true that God calls us to love all with whom we have contact, seeking even their salvation, this in no way proves that God loves all with whom we have contact, seeking their salvation. The simple fact is, God calls us to love many for whom He has no love at all. Why? As we pointed out last time, for His own sovereign and predestinating purpose, some to bring to salvation and others to work out their condemnation according to His eternal will and righteous judgment.
That God calls us to do good and show love as a Christian neighbor even to those for whom He may have no love at all is demonstrated in a passage such as Romans 12:20: “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him: if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.”
It must be noted that Paul is here quoting (in summary form) an Old Testament passage:Proverbs 25:21, 22.
What is of interest is how those of the free offer and Arminian flavor of things attempt to explain that troubling phrase, “…for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” What the promoters of the WMO want no part of is explaining the phrase in terms of God’s wrath, as if the apostle were suggesting that those whom God calls us as believers to love in the most neighborly and merciful way may very well be those for whom He has no love at all, but are numbered amongst those for whom He intends wrath and burning destruction; and in fact, it is to that destructive end that God intends to use our very deeds of mercy and love.
Such an idea is foreign to contemporary Christianity, no matter what one’s denominational affiliation these days. And yet such is the text.
To get around this plain and simplest explanation of the text, some rather fanciful explanations have been offered. At one time, the most common attempt to remove the offending explanation was to speak of the coals of fire in terms of the Christian’s love, his returning good for evil, a burning love causing the unbeliever pain, the pain of remorse and shame. And so through the believer’s loving deeds the ungodly enemy feels pain of conscience, as if coals of fire had been applied to him. And so a purification occurs.
Today, along the same lines, the popular explanation suggests that this heaping of coals of fire on the heads of one’s enemies is a reference to an ancient Arabian method of attempting to heal various diseases, namely, by the application of hot coals to one’s head and body. So likewise, by kind and merciful deeds the believer addresses the disease of hatred in the heart and mind of the ungodly man, and thereby the ungodly is cured of his hatred and cruelty.
The simple fact is that these are strained explanations to get around the simple and plain meaning of the text. They are the result of coming at the text with certain theological presuppositions that are imposed on the text, resulting in strained exegesis that grasps for an explanation that will harmonize somehow with one’s system of doctrine, in this instance the free offer (God desires the salvation of everyone) mentality.
In response to this notion that the text could have some ancient Arabian method of healing in mind, we point out that the text does not refer to a mere applying coals of fire to someone, but to heaping coals of fire on someone—and that is a figure of judgment.
This is confirmed by the Proverbs 25 passage, which adds the phrase, “…and the LORD shall reward thee,” immediately following the phrase, “For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head….” In other words, the phrase “heaping coals of fire on his head” stands in contrast with how God treats the believer for his deeds of mercy upon his enemies. For deeds of kindness towards one’s enemy, the Lord rewards the believer; in contrast to that is how the Lord will deal with the believer’s enemy, namely, by a judgment of burning ignited by these coals of fire.
Old Charles Hodge certainly had it right in his brief commentary on the Romans 12 passage when he wrote, “The most common and natural meaning of the expression, to heap coals of fire upon any one, is to inflict the greatest pain upon him, to punish him most severely…. To rain fire upon any one, is to visit him with the severest and surest destruction.”
The phrase is found elsewhere in Scripture, and all without exception use it in the above described manner. Psalm 140 (an imprecatory Psalm) reads, “Let burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire” (v. 10). And again Psalm 11:6, “Upon the wicked he shall rain coals, fire and brimstone, and an horrible tempest.”
The question is not whether we relish such a notion; the question is, is it scriptural? Plainly it is.
But having referred to this text, perhaps we need to say a bit more about its explanation. We of the New Testament may blanche at the notion that in Romans 12:20 the apostle could be suggesting to Christians something so pragmatic as—if you desire that your enemy be punished in the severest manner, then treat him kindly. In fact Hodge labels this a “revolting … interpretation” and opts for an interpretation that for all intents and purposes makes the “coals of fire” refer to the potential saving value of the believer’s love after all.
Hodge is mistaken, and our blanching misplaced.
What must be kept in mind are two things—first, the apostle is quoting (in summary form) an Old Testament passage—Proverbs 25:21, 22 (as already pointed out); and second, he quotes this passage in the context of calling believers to refrain from taking vengeance into their own hands. The simple fact is that Old Testament believers had no reservations about wanting vengeance upon their enemies and calling God’s wrath down upon them. What they had to learn as believing children of God was to refrain from taking matters into their own hands. Leave such to the Lord. And certainly the Gentile Christians to whom Paul wrote, living in a culture where taking revenge was considered a matter of personal honor, were not so far removed from this spirit either.
What the apostle and the writer of the Proverbs before him are dealing with is the practical reality of human nature and life, the believer’s included. The practical reality is that there are times when wrongs suffered move one to righteous anger and to a desire for justice and vengeance. Let one slander the name of your beloved spouse, or have a trusted business associate cheat you and manipulate law in such a way that results in his evicting you from your own property and taking over the business you founded and developed, and you will know what the texts are talking about. One’s very nature cries against such injustice and wrong. It happened in Old Testament Israel, do not think it did not. It happens today. When it does, what pastoral counsel does one give?
This—You are a Christian. You may not take vengeance into your own hands. Vengeance is the prerogative of the Lord. Leave it with Him! And consider this—if indeed what you as a believer are looking for is justice and judgment upon those who have so abused you and your family, the surest way to accomplish it is not by taking matters into your own hands and giving as ‘good’ as you got. Do that, says God’s Word, and you will bring judgment on yourself. Rather it will be by returning good for the evil, and leaving the vengeance to the Lord.
This simply is a solid, common sense, shrewd, wise (in the ‘Proverbial’ sense) approach to human nature as we find it even in ourselves as believers. It is the apostle’s way of saying, in his pastoral shrewdness, if indeed the one who has done you these grave wrongs is as wicked and incorrigible as you at the moment are convinced he is, then leave it with the Lord; and it will be your doing good to this enemy of yours in return for his evil that will bring just condemnation upon him, not your behaving in like manner to him.
What the apostle is pointing out by implication is that the Lord alone knows who is truly incorrigible as an enemy and who is not. Let Him be God, working it out, bringing to repentance those whom He may be pleased by your good deeds yet to save, and hardening others whom He has fitted to destruction—in the words of Romans 2:8, numbering them amongst those who treasure up unto themselves “indignation and wrath.”
There is one other passage that merits mentioning in this connection— Proverbs 24:17, 18. It reads “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.”
The passage is significant. First of all, because it is another one of those texts that clearly imply that those unto whom the Lord Himself calls us to do good in self-denying love may very well be those for whom the Lord Himself has no love at all; after all, those to whom the believer is called to do good are, the text informs us, the very ones for whom the Lord has been intending judgment and wrath.
Secondly, the text is significant because it confronts us with another reason why we are to love and do good to those whom the Lord may view only as vessels of wrath fitted unto destruction. The first we have already considered, we must leave it to the Lord to use our deeds of kindness as He will, to salvation or to His own just end of judgment and wrath. He is God, determining the destiny of men’s souls. We must not imagine we can usurp this right.
The second reason for this call to show love to ungodly men is that God will never have us forget who we are, namely, in ourselves absolutely no different from that ungodly enemy of ours, no matter what his sin. Woe be unto us if we think for one moment we have made ourselves to differ—as if that is why we are saved. After all, we are the elect! And the reason we are the elect is that we somehow have more to offer to God as His dear children than these others.
This is the spirit that would be displayed should we be found glorying over our enemy’s fall and stumbling. One of pride. He fell and failed—I am glad; he stumbled—what a fool. He comes under God’s judgment. Of course. It is no more than he deserves.
But we do not? We do not deserve the same judgment, being left to stumble in our ways, heaping to ourselves wrath? What! We think we have made ourselves to differ?
That God will not abide—not in one of His children. No more than we would if one of our healthy children should laugh at the deaf and the blind stumbling in confusion, or at the mentally handicapped child. “Look how stupid and slow they are. How superior I am to that. You never see me making such mistakes.” How sorely grieved by such an attitude we would be. And the child would come to know it in no uncertain terms. “If I ever hear you talk that way again…! But as for now, this is your punishment for the next few weeks….”
So with God and us His children when it comes to those who are lost in sin, perhaps even numbered with those who are never to know God, according to His own determination. What do we think, such could not possibly have been true of us or one of ours?
As those saved out of the mass of fallen mankind, we must never forget our natural identity with all the rest. And our attitude must reflect that—that true knowledge of self and of the grace shown to us beyond words. Our enemy falls and stumbles, suffering perhaps a punishment of God upon his foolishness and sin? We had better not rejoice. We had better grieve, and say, “There but for a sovereign grace stronger than my natural spiritual stupidity go I.”
This Proverbs 24:17, 18 makes plain. Let the wise pay heed.
No, we want nothing to do with the ‘Free Offer.’ It fails to do justice to passage after passage of Scripture, and it misrepresents to sinners the truth of God’s love and promises in Christ. But at the same time, our taking issue with the free offer does not mean we are therefore devoid of love for the lost, uninterested in seeking the salvation of those living in enmity against God. Say what men will, the truly Calvinist and Reformed view that we maintain and propagate is not hyper-Calvinism. It is consistently biblical and confessionally Reformed. This the WMO of the gospel has compromised.
As we have stated more than once, when it comes to the free offer’s gospel call to sinners and the lost, the hearer is hard pressed to distinguish anything different in what is said about the character of God and His Christ and grace from what is spouted from a thousand Arminian pulpits across the land. And this, according to the WMO men, is the ‘Marrow of Divinity.’ How sad.
And this is why the Fathers of Dordt took such issue with Arminianism and wrote a definitive creed in defense of the gospel and its doctrines of particular grace? We think not. By God’s good grace, we intend to continue to take issue with the WMO presentation of things, and to preach and promote God’s gospel truth to all and sundry in one consistent line.
Enough of these ‘It’s all a great paradox!’ when it comes to gospel preaching.