Lest They Be Forgiven

Question

Mark 4:11-12 and its parallel verses in the gospels states:

"To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they turn again, and be forgiven" (Mark 4:11-12).

If men are totally depraved and cannot respond to the clear preaching of the gospel without the work of the Spirit, then why did Jesus say that he hid his message in parables so that they wouldn't turn and believe? Why did it matter if he put it in parables if they could not respond anyway?"

Answer

I suppose I could just point out that Jesus is quoting or referring to Isaiah 6, but then that would just push the problem back into the Old Testament. I'll get back to that issue at the end, but I don't want to dodge the question.

I think the answer to the underlying question/problem (whether demonstrated from this particular text or from others) is that most of the Bible is written from what we might call the "human perspective" whereas Total Depravity has to do with God's perspective. I'm not talking about two different realities, but rather two different ways to view one reality. The Bible uses both perspectives at different times, which enables it to speak about any given subject in multiple ways.

Let's consider first the doctrine of Total Depravity itself. In summary, Total Depravity is the doctrine that human beings lack the moral ability to repent and believe the gospel. But human beings do not perceive moral ability. We know of our own moral ability or lack thereof only because Scripture tells us about it. Experientially, we cannot feel the difference between having and lacking moral ability. Further, we cannot see it in others, so that we cannot know if those who hear the gospel will or will not be able to respond to it. Simply put, the human perspective does account for moral ability.

Moreover, all human beings who hear the gospel may legitimately be said to have the opportunity to repent and believe. This is why Reformed theology has traditionally emphasized the "free offer of the gospel." It really is true that everyone who hears the gospel has the opportunity to repent and be saved, and that everyone who hears it "might" come to faith. That we inherently lack the moral ability to do these things does not diminish the reality that the gospel presents us with a human opportunity, and that if we avail ourselves of that opportunity we will be saved.

So, from a human perspective, the question "Do I have the moral ability to respond to the gospel?" makes very little sense. The only real question is "Will I repent and believe?"

These are important distinctions to make because Jesus' statement in the gospels (and God's in Isaiah 6) does not address the issue of moral ability from God's perspective. Rather, it addresses the issue of opportunity from a human perspective. The human being Jesus Christ explained to other human beings that he did not want to provide certain people with an opportunity to be saved.

Jesus knew that if he preached clearly, some of his audience might repent and be saved. But this would not have been in keeping with God's plan for these people at this time. Yes, Jesus could have preached clearly and relied on the Holy Spirit to refuse to regenerate any elect individuals among them. But the fact that this would have been another way around the problem does not invalidate the approach that Jesus actually chose. (As an aside, Jesus' approach was better designed to emphasize the power of the preaching of the gospel.)

Jesus and the gospel writers do not say whether or not any of these people were elect, or whether or not any later came to faith. We do know, however, that in Isaiah 6 the reason for the people's hardening was so that God might carry out temporal judgment against his people as a whole because they had broken his covenant. Also in Isaiah, there was an elect remnant among the people who fell under judgment. By association, it seems reasonable to conclude that Jesus was not speaking of withholding a clear presentation of the gospel from these individuals forever. It may even be the case that Jesus was referring to relief from temporal judgment and not to eternal salvation.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

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