February 2015 • Volume XV, Issue 10
The Lessons of Jonah’s Gourd (1)
After God destroyed with a worm the gourd under which Jonah
had sheltered from the sun, He expostulates with the huffing
prophet in what are probably the least understood and most
intriguing verses of the book: “Thou hast had pity on the
gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest
it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night:
And should not I spare Nineveh, that great city, wherein are
more than sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern
between their right hand and their left hand; and also much
cattle?” (Jonah 4:10-11).
Jonah, of course, should not have needed the lesson of our
text in order to submit to Jehovah and acquiesce in His
destruction of the gourd and salvation of Nineveh. If only
he had considered the marvellous providences of God with
him! Remember the storm (1:4-16) and the great fish
(1:17-2:10). That great beast was in precisely the right
place to stop Jonah from drowning; in its belly, he was
miraculously preserved for three days; it vomited him out on
dry land in just the right part of the Mediterranean.
If only Jonah had really grasped the two key verses in the
book: “Salvation is of the Lord” (2:9) and “thou art a
gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great
kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (4:2)! Both of
these are confessions about God and His salvation that Jonah
himself had made.
If only Jonah had heeded God’s two gentle rebukes: “Doest
thou well to be angry?” (4:4, 9)! But he did not, so he
needed yet more instruction and correction.
At this point, man might propose several hypothetical divine
options. First, Jehovah could kill Jonah. After all, that is
what Jonah wanted (4:3, 8, 9) and no doubt he deserved it.
Second, God could torture Jonah, inflicting more and more
pain until Jonah screams out, “Enough, I give in! I’m
reconciled to your saving of Nineveh!” Third, God could just
let the prophet huff: “Jonah wants to be off on his own; let
him stew in his own juice in his booth; he will get fed up
with it after a while.” Fourth, God could transform Jonah in
an instant by greatly sanctifying him so that he immediately
rejoices in Jehovah’s wise and holy ways with Nineveh and
himself. But these are not the ways God worked with Jonah.
Nor are they the ways our heavenly Father (ever or usually)
works with His people or with us personally—thankfully!
Next time, we shall explain further these last two,
climactic verses of Jonah. They provide the basis for both
the condemnation of Jonah’s anger and huffing concerning the
gourd and Nineveh, and the justification of God’s mercy and
sparing of that city. This fitting and powerful conclusion
to the book enables us to grasp its meaning—good reason for
paying attention to these articles on Jonah 4:10-11! Rev.
God’s Foreknowledge and Man’s Free Will (2)
In last month’s News, I began a discussion of two questions
that came to me, both dealing with related subjects. (1) The
first concentrated on God’s foreknowledge, arguing that to
believe in foreknowledge is foolishness, for it implies
contradictions in God Himself that are beyond resolution.
(2) The second, a series of questions, had to do more with
man’s free will. This latter question appealed to the
biblical narrative of the fiery serpents that attacked
Israel because of their murmuring (Num. 21:4-9) and the fulfilment of the brass serpent, of which Jesus speaks in
(1) I will deal with divine foreknowledge first. We must
remember, in talking about God’s counsel (for foreknowledge
is a decree in God’s counsel), that the divine counsel is
eternal. This does not mean that God Himself and His counsel
are without a temporal beginning and a temporal end. It
means that God’s counsel is timeless, without time, above
time, not in any way affected by time, since Jehovah Himself
We are so totally controlled by time that we cannot even
form an idea of divine eternity. Eternity means that we
cannot speak of “when” God does something (as the questioner
does), for “when” implies time. We cannot speak of one work
of God preceding another work of God in eternity, for one
thing preceding another is something characteristic of time.
All the decrees of God are eternally before His mind and
they are so without change.
The terms (a) foreknowledge, (b) election and (c)
predestination refer to the same decree of God, but they
look at that decree from different points of view.
(a) God’s foreknowledge is His eternal knowledge of His
purpose to glorify Himself through Jesus Christ and the
salvation of the church. This foreknowledge of salvation in
Christ includes God’s eternal foreknowledge of the cross of
Christ as the means of salvation (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28).
It must never be forgotten, however, that God’s knowledge of
something is not like our knowledge. I have knowledge of a
black walnut tree that once stood in my backyard. But I knew
that tree only after the tree was there. God knew that black
walnut tree before the tree was there.
In fact, because God’s counsel is the living will of the
living God, His knowledge of that black walnut tree was the
cause of the tree’s existence. And so it is with all things.
God is omniscient, not because He is able accurately to
predict the future, but because He determines all that takes
place in time in His eternal counsel.
(b) Election refers to the same decree of God to save His
people in Christ, but with this word the emphasis falls on
the fact that He chooses with absolute precision and final
determination those whom He wishes to save. “To elect” means
(c) Predestination in Scripture also refers to God’s eternal
will to save His people in Christ, but looks at God’s decree
from the viewpoint of its purpose or destiny. That purpose
is to take His elect into everlasting fellowship with
Himself in Jesus Christ. Predestination also refers to all
that God determines to do to attain that goal.
(2) I turn now to the issue of man’s free will. The question
we face is this: Does fallen man have the natural ability to
choose to do good or evil? We are not talking about Adam
before he fell. Nor are we talking about man today who may
choose to send you a letter or to refrain from sending it,
to eat a T-bone steak for dinner or a hamburger, to buy a
Ford car or a Mercedes. The question asked—and the question
that has been asked a thousand times—is this: Does a totally
depraved man possess the moral ability to choose to do that
which pleases God and meets with His approval. Or, as it is
so often said nowadays, does sinful man have the spiritual
ability to accept the salvation offered him in the gospel?
Is man’s salvation determined by his own choice?
The question is an ancient one. Even in Augustine’s day
(354-430), the question had to be faced. In those days, the
Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians taught that man had a free will
and that God saved only those who wanted to be saved by
their (alleged) free will. Augustine most emphatically
denied it. The Roman Catholic Church most emphatically
taught it and killed those who denied it. All the Reformers,
without exception, denied free will, as did the Reformed and
Presbyterian churches throughout Europe. The Arminians
taught it; the Synod of Dordt, representing the Reformed
churches in the whole of Europe denied it. And so it is
today: there are those who teach free will and there are
those who deny it, who rightly insist that total depravity
is total depravity and not partial depravity (Rom. 3:9-20).
Let those who teach free will admit that they are in
doctrinal agreement with the Roman Catholic Church on this
point. So important was the question that Martin Luther,
whom we esteem as a great Reformer, wrote a book against
Erasmus, a humanistic representative of Roman Catholicism,
called The Bondage of the Will (1525). Luther understood the
importance of the question. In answering Erasmus, Luther
complimented him on dealing with the one, most important and
most crucial, issue that divided the Reformers from Rome. If
Erasmus was right, Luther insisted, there was no reason to
reform the church and split from Rome.
It is well, as the questioner suggests, that we understand
that other crucial doctrines are involved. Some of the most
important are: whether Christ died for all men absolutely or
for His elect alone (John 10:11); whether God loves all men
or His elect alone (Rom. 9:13); whether God gives grace to
all men or to His elect alone (II Tim. 1:9); whether God
wants all men to be saved or whether He wills the salvation
of His elect people alone (Matt. 11:25-27); whether all men
have the ability to be saved or whether wicked man will
always reject the gospel—unless God Himself saves him (John
The question is of utmost importance. It divides between
orthodox, believing Christians and heretical theologians who
stand outside the stream of the church of Christ here on
earth. Let no man belittle the issue.
The only answer that anyone can give is that the church of
Christ since Pentecost to today, including Paul’s epistles
to the Galatians and the Romans, all the great creeds of the
church and all the greatest theologians, have held to this
one position: Man’s fall resulted in his total depravity,
that is, his total inability to do any good and his ability to do only what is evil.
This includes his will: the will of fallen man is totally unable to do anything
pleasing to God; it is totally unable to contribute even 0.001% to a man’s salvation; it can do nothing but hate God (Rom. 1:30).
I have recently completed an extensive study of the teachings of the church on this
very question. I cannot duplicate the results of that research here. The evidence is conclusive:
there have been heretics without number who have denied the doctrine of the slavery of the will,
but the true church has consistently and without reservation condemned such errors and held
to the absolute sovereignty of Almighty God in the salvation of sinners. The church has always taught
(and one need only read its confessions to see this) that man is totally depraved; that Christ died
only for His elect people who were given Him of the Father; that God loves His people, but hates
the wicked; that God saves a people chosen from all eternity and bestows on them, and on them only,
His grace; that His grace cannot be resisted; that those chosen by God will be saved so that all of
them will live forever in covenant communion with the Triune God (Ps. 11:5-7; John 6:39-40; 10:27-29; Rom. 8:30-39; Eph. 1:3-14).
I shall deal with the passage in Numbers 21 to which the questioner calls our attention in the next
issue. But I want to make a few more remarks in this connection.
The question is not to be answered in terms of what we would like or what we think ought to happen.
The question is ultimately—and it is a question every one of us has to answer, for there is no escaping it—Do you choose
to go along with the Roman Catholic Church on this crucial question? Do you want to join in the raucous cacophony
of far and away the majority of the church world that thinks it knows better than God what He ought to do?
Do you want a God who waits upon the will of man to decide whether or not to be saved? Do you want a Christ
whose death is so ineffectual that it cannot save those for whom He died? Must Christ everlastingly wring His
hands in despair that so many whom He loved and wanted to save actually go to hell?
I do not want that kind of God or that kind of Christ. He cannot do me any good. If even an iota of this
glorious work is left to me, I shall perish. I know it. I know with it with such absolute certainty
that Paul’s glorious doxology is the one that I rejoice to sing: “I am crucified with Christ:
nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh
I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.
I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain” (Gal. 2:20-21).
Any other God but the sovereign God, in whose hand is the king’s heart so that “he turneth it
whithersoever he will” (Prov. 21:1), is an idol, a humanistic invention that makes God small and helpless,
and raises man to a level with the divine. Prof. Hanko
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