A. N. Wilson is a New Testament scholar who left the Christian faith when he was in his thirties but who has now begun to believe once again. It’s a great story, and you can read about it here.
As great as Wilson’s story is, that is not the main point of my writing today. Dr. Ben Witherington has a short post on his blog about Wilson’s return to the faith, and my aim today is to respond to one little piece from Witherington’s commentary. Witherington writes:
“One would think there was enough in the Bible to remind us that where there is life, there is hope, when it comes to a person becoming a Christian. And even if someone began in the faith, and then backslide or even repudiated it for a while, why should we assume that such a person is beyond hope, beyond help, beyond a return to the Lord? Now this sort of coming and going is understandable from a human point of view, but it would be hard to explain from a deterministic one (did God really pre-determine a person to be a Christian early in life, then commit apostasy and write books attacking Christianity, then return to the faith?).”
I think that Witherington is trying to say that if God predetermines who is to be saved then the road to conversion (or through sanctification) must be a smooth one. After all, if God predetermines who will be saved, why wouldn’t He simply close the deal the first time around? On Calvinistic grounds, therefore, one would have a hard time explaining A. N. Wilson’s experience.
My response to this would simply be to say that Wilson’s experience is no more troubling to Calvinism than the Apostle Peter’s. Peter was the rock upon whom Jesus said he would build his church (Matthew 16:18-19). Yet Peter denied Christ three times before the resurrection (Luke 22:55-61). Moreover, after the resurrection, the apostle Paul had to rebuke Peter for not being straightforward about the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:11-16).
No one doubts the conversion of Peter, but any normal reading of the biblical text would reveal that Peter’s conversion and sanctification was anything but smooth. At the same time, the scripture is also clear that God was the one who predetermined Peter’s conversion and calling. Jesus Himself said to Peter, “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16, 19). Jesus also told Peter that it was by God’s initiative that an apostle could even see that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 16:17).
Nevertheless, Jesus comprehended the difficulties that Peter would have and indeed determined that Satan would not have the final say on Peter’s destiny. In fact, Jesus said that he himself would have the final say: “Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31-32).
A. N. Wilson is not the first one to take a winding path to conversion (or through sanctification). We see it clearly in the Bible’s depiction of Peter. Why should we expect that such might not be the case with others?
All of that to say that I think Witherington’s off-handed remark about Calvinism really falls flat. The same scripture that teaches unconditional election also shows us that the elect are not perfect. They sin (sometimes miserably), and they are nonetheless elect. And God is nonetheless glorious for saving sinners in His own way and in His own timing.