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Arminian Honesty About Acts 13:48

If I had to say one passage of Scripture that is difficult for me as an Arminian to reply to it would be Acts 13:48.  The text reads:

ESV: And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.

NIV: When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.

NASB: When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.

KJV: And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed.

Adam Clarke offers this on verse 48:

This text has been most pitifully misunderstood. Many suppose that it simply means that those in that assembly who were fore-ordained; or predestinated by God’s decree, to eternal life, believed under the influence of that decree. Now, we should be careful to examine what a word means, before we attempt to fix its meaning. Whatever tetagmenoi may mean, which is the word we translate ordained, it is neither protetagmenoi nor proorismenoi which the apostle uses, but simply tetagmenoi, which includes no idea of pre-ordination or pre-destination of any kind. And if it even did, it would be rather hazardous to say that all those who believed at this time were such as actually persevered unto the end, and were saved unto eternal life. But, leaving all these precarious matters, what does the word tetagmenov mean? The verb tattw or tassw signifies to place, set, order, appoint, dispose; hence it has been considered here as implying the disposition or readiness of mind of several persons in the congregation, such as the religious proselytes mentioned ver. 43, who possessed the reverse of the disposition of those Jews who spake against those things, contradicting and blaspheming, ver. 45. Though the word in this place has been variously translated, yet, of all the meanings ever put on it, none agrees worse with its nature and known signification than that which represents it as intending those who were predestinated to eternal life: this is no meaning of the term, and should never be applied to it. Let us, without prejudice, consider the scope of the place: the Jews contradicted and blasphemed; the religious proselytes heard attentively, and received the word of life: the one party were utterly indisposed, through their own stubbornness, to receive the Gospel; the others, destitute of prejudice and prepossession, were glad to hear that, in the order of God, the Gentiles were included in the covenant of salvation through Christ Jesus; they, therefore, in this good state and order of mind, believed. Those who seek for the plain meaning of the word will find it here: those who wish to make out a sense, not from the Greek word, its use among the best Greek writers, and the obvious sense of the evangelist, but from their own creed, may continue to puzzle themselves and others; kindle their own fire, compass themselves with sparks, and walk in the light of their own fire, and of the sparks which they have kindled; and, in consequence, lie down in sorrow, having bidden adieu to the true meaning of a passage so very simple, taken in its connection, that one must wonder how it ever came to be misunderstood and misapplied.

F.F. Bruce wrote about verses 48-49:

Distasteful as this announcement was to the synagogue leaders, it was joyful news to the Gentiles who heard it, and many of them believed the gospel – all, in fact, who had been enrolled for eternal life in the records of heaven (for this appears to be the sense of the words here used).  And not only in the city itself, but throughout the surrounding countryside as well, those who believed the good news carried it to others.

In a footnote on Acts 13:48, Bruce wrote:

There is no good reason for weakening the predestinarian note here, as H. Alford does by rendering “as many as were disposed to eternal life.”

And Bruce goes on to show that the Greek participle used here in the sense of “inscribe” or “enroll” is used in other places both in the Old and New Testament as well as in other Greek and rabbinical writings.

In a commentary on Acts I have here before me written from a classical Pentecostal view (Robert Tourville), the writer comments about verse 48:

By way of contrast Paul had said (v. 46) that the Jews had “judged themselves unworthy of eternal life.”  This helps to understand what is meant by “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.”  The word “appointed” (tetagmenoi) is a perfect tense participle of the passive voice, but it is also the middle voice form since there is no middle form as distinguished from the passive form.  In light of the context the middle form is the verb tosso, found in the New Testament eight times, of which four occur in Acts.  It is translated appointed, set, ordained, addicted, and devoted.  In the Septuagint it is used numerous times with varied meanings as, to order, appoint, assign, and arrange.  The same voice is used in Acts 28:23, where tosso is used to mean they “had arranged” or “had appointed” or “had set” a day in behalf of themselves.  This brings out the middle voice precisely as in this verse (48).  The same middle sense is found in Matthew 28:16 for this verb.  According to Liddell and Scott the word tosso is a military term meaning “to  draw up in order to battle,” to form array, marshal, to place in a certain order or relative position, to agree upon and settle.

From the above we see the word is used as an analogy.  The command has gone forth to believe on Jesus as Savior.  The Jews refused to believe but the Gentiles rejoice and glorify the word of the Lord by following in the rank with the other soldiers of the Cross.  Thus, they “arrange” themselves, order themselves, line up with eyes right in accord with the preaching of the gospel.  This fits the middle and passive meaning of the verb and harmonizes with the context.

The view above has been my own and remains.  That said, Acts 13:48 is a tough verse.  I am not shy in admitting that.  In my humble opinion, Acts 13:48 is the toughest verse I know to explain from an Arminian viewpoint.  In my estimation, the Calvinist view of Acts 13:48 is easier to hold to.

However, I will say that while Acts 13:48 is hard to explain, I don’t think we should interpret the Bible based just on Acts 13:48.  I know that Calvinists say that we should not interpret the entire Bible based on John 3:16.  I would agree.  We must allow the weight of Scripture determine our view.  Too often I find that Calvinists interpret the Bible based on TULIP instead of looking at the context of Scripture.  For example, I know many Calvinists hold to limited atonement because of TULIP and so they explain away many unlimited texts such as John 3:16 or Romans 11:32 or 1 Timothy 2:4 because it doesn’t fit into the TULIP system.  They base limited atonement on logic (well Jesus died only for the sheep, for the church and because of unconditional election, He certainly must have died only for the elect) instead of Scripture.

Likewise, just because I don’t understand fully Acts 13:48, this doesn’t mean that I take Acts 13:48 and then apply it to the conditional texts of election.  As I have written before, the mystery in Calvinism is how God can be good and gracious while He ordains whatsoever comes to pass including sin.  The mystery in Arminianism is how God works through free creatures to accomplish His divine will.  This mystery in Arminianism does not make God the author of sin and thus I am comfortable with this mystery.

Acts 13:48 has been a verse many Calvinists have looked to and used it to interpret even the whosoever verses.  It is a verse you will always see as a proof text for unconditional election.

As an Arminian, I don’t have an easy answer for Acts 13:48.  Again, I point to Tourville above as a common argument used by Arminians to answer Acts 13:48 but one in which Bruce above also denied.  While I am comfortable admitting that I don’t have an easy answer to Acts 13:48, I am okay with that.  It doesn’t mean that I must repent of my Arminianism and become a five pointer.  I simply acknowledge that I don’t have all the answers nor is Arminianism a perfect system.  We have unanswered questions.

My question is whether Calvinists would do the same?  Are they willing to admit that they don’t have a perfect system?  I suppose many would not.  Sadly, many Calvinists (though not all thank the Lord) hold that their system is the gospel.  I don’t.  I don’t believe either Arminianism nor Calvinism is the gospel.  I believe both are systems by which we seek to make sense of our salvation while acknowledging that God alone saves us by His grace (Jonah 2:9; Revelation 1:5-6).  Jesus Christ and not our systems is who saves us (Hebrews 7:25).  I am okay with mystery in my system.  My system flows from the teachings of Arminius as he best understood Scripture but Arminius was just a man who loved Christ and wanted to glorify Him.  It was created by a fallen man just as Calvinism flows from a fallen man.  Both systems flow from fallen men who sought to exalt the Lord Jesus by their teachings.  They were both imperfect men who needed Christ for their salvation.

So here I sit with Acts 13:48.  I am okay in saying that this verse is tough.  I am okay with listening to Calvinists explain the text as it fits into their system.  I am also okay with Arminians seeking to explain  why this verse is not a divine determinism passage.  As an Arminian, I admit my bias here but admit that I don’t know.  Indeed, God is God and He is bigger than I will ever understand nor can I grasp Him (Romans 11:33-36).  I am okay with and will continue to worship Him no matter what mysteries I cannot explain.

Acts 13:48 and Calvinism by Dr. Jack Cottrell

QUESTION: Can you explain the meaning of Acts 13:48? It sounds very much like Calvinism to me.

ANSWER: This text summarizes the response of the Gentiles to the powerful preaching of the Apostle Paul at Antioch of Pisidia: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (ESV).

As usually translated, it is very true that this passage supports the key Calvinist doctrine of unconditional predestination (the “U” in TULIP). This is the idea that in his eternal pre-creation counsels and plans, God surveyed all the human beings whom he would ultimately bring into existence, all of whom as a result of Adam’s sin would become guilty of sin and condemned to hell. By God’s decree this universal sinfulness would also involve universal total depravity, including the loss of all free-will ability to turn toward God for salvation. The only way anyone could ever be saved was if God worked some basic supernatural change within the human heart that would not only make faith possible but would also actually implant that faith within the heart as an irresistible and irrevocable gift. (This last point is the Calvinist notion of irresistible grace—the “I” in TULIP).

Thus as Calvinists see it, God in his eternal counsels surveyed all these future helpless sinners and determined to save some of them; and he also determined precisely which ones he would save and which ones he would allow to remain in their sin and be condemned to eternity in hell. Why he decided to choose (elect) these specific sinners and not the others is not known to us. The fact is that he unconditionally chose some, and appointed or predestined them to become believers and thus inherit eternal life.

We can see how the usual translations of Acts 13:48 support this Calvinist view: only those appointed (ESV, NIV, NASB, NKJV) or destined (NRSV) or pre-destined (Weymouth) or ordained (KJV, ASV) or chosen (TEV) for eternal life actually became believers.

The question is this: how can this be reconciled with the Arminian (non-Calvinist) view? The key lies in the form of the main Greek verb, tassō. The basic meaning of this verb is “to place, to order, to appoint, to ordain, to determine, to arrange in order.” As it appears in this text, the verb form is the participle tetagmenoi. It is simply assumed that this is the PASSIVE form of the verb, thus: “to be appointed, to be ordained, to be destined.” What is often forgotten is that in the Greek language, often the passive and the middle form of verbs are spelled exactly the same way. That is the case here. The word tetagmenoi can also be the MIDDLE form of the verb. Here is the main point: that is how it should be understood in Acts 13:48.

What does this verse mean, then? The middle voice of a verb in Greek is sometimes used in a reflexive sense. The idea is that the action of the verb is something performed by the subject (not by someone else upon the subject), but in such a way that the action is directed back toward the subject or the self. Understanding that the verb means “to place, to set, to arrange in a certain order or position,” we can see that the statement in 13:48 can quite validly be taken thus: “As many as arranged themselves unto (eis) eternal life believed,” or “As many as turned themselves toward eternal life believed,” or “As many as disposed themselves toward eternal life believed.”

Why should we accept this approach to the verb—i.e., as middle voice rather than passive? For two reasons. First, it agrees with the general overall teaching of Scripture, that turning toward God is a matter of free will and personal responsibility, not something unconditionally and irresistibly caused by God.

Second, this agrees with the context, where the Jews’ response to the gospel is being contrasted with that of the Gentiles. In Acts 13:13-41 Paul preached a powerful Sabbath sermon in the Jews’ synagogue at Antioch. Many of the Jews were so impressed that they asked for an encore the next Sabbath (vv. 42-43). Then on “the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord” (v. 44). This crowd obviously included many Gentiles, because “when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him” (v. 45). This provoked Paul and Barnabas to speak this judgment upon the Jews: “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles” (v. 46). This verse is important because it shows that the exclusion of the Jews from the ranks of the saved was their own choice, not the result of some predestining activity of God. The Jews specifically judged themselves unworthy of eternal life.

This is exactly the opposite of the Gentiles’ reaction, especially when Paul and Barnabas applied Isaiah 49:6 to themselves: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth” (v. 47). Verse 48 then describes the reaction of the Gentiles to this preaching. It was in fact just the opposite of the Jews’ reaction: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord.” Then follow the crucial words: and as many as set themselves toward eternal life believed. How did they set themselves toward eternal life? By hearing and heeding the word of God (see Rom. 10:17).

We cannot ignore the symmetrical contrast between the reaction of the Jews in v. 46 and the reaction of the Gentiles in v. 48. Whereas the Jews rejected the gospel and judged themselves to be unworthy of eternal life (v. 46), the Gentiles received it gladly and embraced the message of eternal life (v. 48). In both cases the decision was a matter of free choice. There is no support for Calvinism in v. 48.

HT: Jack Cottrell

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