Paul’s First Recorded Sermon
When Paul and Barnabas arrived at Antioch of Pisidia in Asia Minor (Acts 13:14), they entered the Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath. After preliminary procedures, the rulers invited Paul to speak. Paul seized the opportunity and began a discourse that spans Acts 13:16–41 (likely abbreviated).
Paul’s proclamation received a mixed response. It invoked serious consideration by honest souls, some Jews, along with others who had proselyted to the Hebrew faith.
Some were converted, being immersed for the forgiveness of their sins (Acts 2:38), for Paul and Barnabas “urged them to continue in the grace of God” (v. 43b), and one cannot continue in what he is not in already! Salvation by God’s grace is culminated by baptism, i.e., the “washing of water” in conjunction with instruction from God’s “word” (Eph. 2:8–9; 5:26).
The Apostle’s Rebuke
Paul had strong words of censure for rebels who contradicted his inspired message (v. 45b). Luke emphasized Paul’s presentation as “the word of God” (vv. 44, 46, 48, 49). In rejecting Paul, they were rejecting God.
In God’s plan of redemption, the Jewish nation was privileged by having the “word of God” offered to them “first” (v. 46b). But in rebellion, many “thrust” the sacred message away.
Note that these wicked souls chose to reject the gospel message. In so doing, they brought judgment upon themselves, being “unworthy of eternal life”—if they sustained their defiant disposition. This context emphatically teaches that rejecting the gospel is deadly if permanently embraced!
Paul argued from Old Testament prophecy (Isa. 49:6) that the Gentiles’ conversion was an important part of Jehovah’s plan of redemption. The Hebrews had been selected as the genealogical line from which the Messiah would be born, but that never implied that the Gentiles were to be excluded from Heaven’s redemptive mercy.
In contrast to hostile Jews (v. 50), the Gentiles were delighted at this redemptive news (vv. 48–49). They “glorified” the message (a sustained emotion). They magnified, extolled, and praised God for his willingness to provide a way of relief from their guilt of sin.
In their judgment, the divine plan of salvation was one of “splendid greatness” (Danker eta al, 258). Moreover, they accepted the apostolic message as the “word of God,” a reality foreign even to many of today’s ill-informed “theologians”!
Luke affirmed that “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.” This phrase has troubled many theologians, particularly those who have ingested the misguided philosophy of John Calvin. Preliminary to an examination of this matter, note the following.
The Predestination Controversy
John Calvin (1509–64), who was influenced by Augustine (354–430), popularized the Protestant dogma of “predestination.” Calvin wrote:
All [people] are not created on equal-terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and accordingly, as each has been created for one or the other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death (III.xxi.5).
The Westminster Confession (highly influential in Presbyterian churches) alleges the number of the elect is “unchangeably designed” and cannot be “increased or decreased” (III.iv). A dogma more contradictory to biblical truth can scarcely be imagined!
Calvin’s predestination and election doctrines contradict the biblical depiction of God’s character. If the Lord was pleased to save only some, and to pass by, and to ordain others to dishonor and wrath, as the Westminster Confession alleges (III.vii), then God is a “respecter of persons.”
This contradicts the clear testimony of the New Testament (Acts 10:34–35; Rom. 2:11; Eph. 6:9; Jas. 2:1, 9; 1 Pet. 1:17). It places our Maker on a lower moral level than what he requires of men.
Calvinism conflicts with the biblical testimony that it is God’s ideal will that all people be saved. Paul explicitly declares that the Lord “would have all men to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:4).
The verb “would have” (
thelei) is a present-tense form, which reveals Heaven’s abiding, consistent disposition concerning the lost. There is no radical loophole affirming that God is “pleased” that some are eternally banished to hell (cf. Ezek. 33:11; Jn. 3:16; 2 Pet. 3:9b).
What a horrible indictment this is against our merciful God!
Calvin’s theory of unconditional salvation clashes with scores of texts that affirm that human redemption is conditioned upon obedience to God’s plan (Jn. 3:36 ASV, ESV). Christ is the author of eternal salvation to those who “obey him” (Mt. 7:21; Heb. 5:9; cf. 2 Thes. 1:8; 1 Pet. 4:17).
Calvinism is nullified by the fact that one’s spiritual status can be altered, contrary to the claim that God’s eternal decree is unchangeable.
If the eternal destiny of all people was fixed immutably before the foundation of the world, there is no way for a person to move from the lost state to the saved state or vice versa. And yet the entire theme of the Bible is that of potential salvation for the lost. How is it possible to miss this point?
Christ came to save those who were lost (Lk. 19:10). The great Physician announced that the sick could be made whole (Mk. 2:17). The Christians in Ephesus had been spiritually dead but were made alive in Christ (Eph. 2:1, 5). Peter’s contrasts concerning “the elect” demolishes Calvinism. The elect had come from darkness to light, from being no people to being “the people of God”; from being void of mercy to recipients of mercy (1 Pet. 2:9–10).
The Controversial Text
The puzzling portion of this context in Acts is 13:48b: “as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.”
There are several aspects of this phrase that must be understood.
First, no interpretation may be assigned to an obscure text that is in obvious conflict with the clear testimony of scripture elsewhere. In sound biblical exegesis, obscure passages must be brought into harmony with perfectly transparent texts on the same subject (cf. Terry, 49).
The term “ordained” deserves special attention. The word has a variety of meanings in the New Testament. It may signify to “arrange” or to “set in order.”
Lenski, a Lutheran, says in this case, the term may have either a passive form, “were ordained,” or a middle-voice construction, they “determined themselves” (552). The context indicates that the latter is here in view.
These obedient Gentiles are set in contrast to the Jews, who thrust from themselves the message of salvation (v. 46b; cf. Jn. 3:36 ASV).
Professor Knowling observed there is no justification for Calvinism here “since verse 46 had already shown that the Jews had acted through their own choice” (2.300; emphasis added).
The sense then is this. Those who believed were those who had determined for themselves that they had been offered and would accept God’s gift of eternal life.
“Believed” does not suggest they merely assented. Instead, it argues that they obeyed the truth (cf. “believed” as in 16:31–34). (See McGarvey on this theme [II.29–33] and Sewell in Lipscomb, et al 470; cf. also A. Clarke.)
The New Testament clearly teaches that salvation is a matter of (a) being convinced that accountable people, due to personal sin, enter a lost condition; (b) being willing to repent of their transgressions; (c) submitting to water immersion for forgiveness (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Pet. 3:21).
The idea that everyone’s salvation or condemnation was set before the foundation of the world and that every person’s eternal destiny has been divinely imposed regardless of his obedience borders on theological irrationality.
- Calvin, John. 1975. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Two Vols.
- Clarke, Adam. n.d. “Acts” Bible Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon.
- Danker, F. W. et al. 2000. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: University Press.
- Knowling, R. J. 1956. The Expositor’s Greek Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans. Vol. 2.
- Lipscomb, David & Sewell, E. G. 1952. Questions Answered. Nashville: Gospel Advocate.
- Lenski, R. C. H. 1934. Commentary on Acts. Minneapolis: Augsburg.
- McGarvey, J. W. 1892. New Commentary on Acts of Apostles. Reprint, Gospel Light, Delight, AR.
- Terry, Milton. 1890. Biblical Hermeneutics. New York: Hunt & Eaton.
- Westminster Confession. http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html