Dishonest Jesus

Question

I guess I'll never be a very good Calvinist, but it just seems awfully insincere and dishonest to say you want something and act as if that's true, when you know all along that there is a more important decree that prevents the precise thing that you say you want to happen! This is what happens when Jesus preaches in such a way as to confuse people (Matt. 13:10-17). How do Calvinists understand this verse?

Answer

Yes, Matthew 13:10-17 does seem to say that Jesus is purposely preaching in ways that will make people unable to understand. But, right in the middle of that passage, he says, "With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says: 'You will indeed listen, but never understand, you will indeed look, but never perceive.' For this people's heart has grown dull, and their ears are hard of hearing, and they have shut their eyes" (Matt. 13:14-15 NRSV). He blames them for shutting their own eyes, and says that they fulfill the prophecy by the way they act. Also, in verse 13, Jesus says, "Hearing they do not listen." "Listen" is something that they have to do. If they don't listen and pay attention, then it should be no surprise that his parables sound like babble to them, that they hear him but don't understand.

Actually, "listen" is a bit more vague than that. Even the English word "listen" can also mean "obey," or "hear," or "heed," or a number of other things. The Hebrew that Jesus paraphrases here is found in Isaiah 6:8-13. There, the word is bin, meaning "discern." And the Greek word in Matthew 13:13 is akouo -- the same word the NRSV translates in the same verse as "hearing." The NRSV was no doubt trying to portray the idea that the second use of the verb was nuanced differently from the first use. The NASB provides a more literal translation that respects the fact that the same word is used twice: "while hearing they do not hear." The Greek word akouo has a very similar range of meaning to our English word "hear." It may also mean "obey," "listen," "heed," "understand," etc.

The Calvinist grants that people are culpable for not hearing. It is their fault because of their hardness of heart, or unwillingness to understand, or whatever. The preaching of the gospel is just the means God uses to affect their further hardening. In their case, it is an act of temporal judgment. Nevertheless, Jesus knows this will be the effect of his preaching on at least some people, and he preaches to them anyway.

Really, this tension is not so intriguing. On the one hand, we agree that sinners deserve condemnation, and we desire to see God's justice triumph. On the other hand, we are sorrowful over the lost, and we love God's mercy; we rejoice whenever a soul is saved. God is just; God is wrathful and vengeful; God is merciful and forgiving. We must desire and exult in all of his attributes.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.