Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Numbers Game

“I rejoiced greatly to find some of your children walking in the truth …”

A few years ago I sat through a summer camp message from an alumnus of Dallas Theological Seminary. I can’t remember the man’s name now, and it doesn’t really matter. The thrust of his message was that a very, very large number of people will ultimately come to the knowledge of Christ and be brought into the fellowship of the saints. Comparatively few, he said, would be lost.

I found him quite unconvincing.

A Bit of Dodgy Exegesis

Perhaps that’s because I’m a chronic pessimist, but I don’t think so. The way he used scripture to make his case was more than a little dodgy. He called on various biblical expressions of great magnitude to argue that more will be saved than will be lost.

An example: the offspring of Abraham are compared to grains of sand on the seashore. If we take that comparison anywhere close to literally, as our speaker encouraged us to do, that number is exceedingly large. Point in his favor, perhaps. However, he failed to notice that the exact same expression is used in Joshua of a very finite army of Canaanites. How many were they: hundreds of thousands, perhaps a million? No more, surely, and probably considerably less.

What are numbers like that, really, when we have 7.5 billion + on the planet currently, and billions more dead throughout human history? It should be abundantly clear the Lord is using the expression “sand on the seashore” rhetorically, not with painstaking literality. This is not unreasonable. In the real world, without some kind of mechanical means of tabulating great numbers, we often lose track of them above a few thousand and cannot total them with any certainty. God is saying, “If I put them all in front of you, you would not be able to count them.” That’s it. No more, no less. Vast as it may be, that particular expression tells us nothing useful about the relative number of saved and unsaved across history.

Anyway, this was the sort of questionable logic the camp speaker employed across the board. I therefore found it very difficult to reach the same conclusions he had come to and which seemed to give him comfort.

Things We Know and Things We Don’t

Hey, I’m sure he meant well, and I’m not about to make a counterargument that more will be lost than saved. I’m not really arguing anything at all ... or I’m arguing for not arguing. The fact is that we don’t know in what precise ratio humankind has responded historically, is responding today, and will respond in the future to the gospel, either positively or negatively.

What we can say with confidence is that some will not respond, that others will initially respond and then fall away, and that still others will bear fruit and grow to maturity for the pleasure of God. The Lord’s teaching in Matthew 13 makes that clear beyond any reasonable argument.

In the passage from 2 John I quoted above, we read that “some” of the children of the “elect lady” were walking in the truth. Some, not all. And yet John found reason to rejoice.

How are we to think about that? Are we to be disappointed? That would seem a strange response when the apostle himself was not daunted by the same facts and actually enthused over them, in his own words, “greatly”.

“Some” of Your Children

There is no Greek equivalent to the English word “some” in John’s sentence. A literal translation reads “I rejoiced greatly to find of your children …” And yet hundreds, maybe thousands of translators of dozens of English translations have arrived at exactly the same conclusion about what John is saying here, and I am not about to argue with them. He is saying that there were “children” who had left the path of truth and children who had continued on that path. The ones who continued gave him great joy. The ones who did not continue? Well, John does not say, but we can reasonably conclude that they did not lift his heart in the same way.

We need not spend too much time fussing about whether the “lady” John addresses was a real woman or simply a figurative expression signifying a local church somewhere. If “lady” is literal and her children equally literal, then John is probably saying some were believers and some were not. If “lady” is speaks of a local gathering, then “children” may refer to either believers or to both believers and those who gathered with them and were taught alongside them.

Either way, we are probably familiar with the pattern from both scripture and our own experience. Some grow up in Christian families and never show an interest in the things of God. Some profess faith in Christ and continue in it. Some profess faith in Christ and, at one point or another, wander away from the plain teaching of the Word. They fail to walk in the truth.

They may still go to church. They may still say they are Christians. But in one way or another, they are failing to live out consistently the things they once claimed to believe.

Adam Had a Cain …

Commentators generally leave the word “some” more or less alone. There are exceptions. John Gill says:
Adam had a Cain, Abraham an Ishmael, and Isaac an Esau.”
True enough. The Biblical Illustrator adds:
“Walking in the truth is that which is expected of all Christians; yet it does not so uniformly or so fully accompany a Christian profession but that the seeing of it and the hearing about it cause lively joy.”
God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance,” and he takes “no pleasure in the death of anyone.” About these things both Old and New Testaments agree. And yet scripture is very clear that some men and women will perish. They will not reach repentance. They will ultimately be cast into the lake of fire, and God will take no pleasure in that. These are men and women who simply will not walk in the truth. They want no part of it. They may be — no, they will be — our friends, co-workers, neighbors and family members.

Likewise, there are degrees to which Christian men and women walk in the truth. Some believers freely allow the Holy Spirit to modify their thoughts, words and conduct. More of us resist his work in this way or that, and fail to fully enjoy the benefit of his presence. To the extent that we do not reach maturity, can we say that we are fully “walking in the truth”? I think we cannot.

From the perspective of heaven, these are not unexpected developments. And because God has spelled out for us in his word how the kingdom of heaven will manifest itself in our world, we also should not find it surprising to see people reject the offer of salvation or fail to reach maturity.

A Meager Harvest?

At the root of our camp speaker’s conviction that surpassingly great numbers of men and women must be saved was something approximating this question: How can God be satisfied with a meager harvest?

I don’t know the answer to that and I can’t think of scriptures that address it. God told Abraham he would have held back his judgment of the great city of Sodom for the sake of a mere ten righteous men. In saying this, he reveals deep concern for relatively small numbers of righteous men and women amidst huge numbers of their wicked peers. On that basis alone, I’m not at all sure how I would attempt to calculate what level of gospel effectiveness might satisfy God. If his servants are of such great value to him, I would not presume to speculate what would constitute a “meager” harvest from his perspective.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must confess these are questions we are not equipped to answer. I can only think of verses like these:
“Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous.”

“Behold, I and the children God has given me.”

“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness.”
Wow. Whatever the ultimate results may be, I think we can agree that God will be happy with them.

The Final Tally

So what will be the final tally? How many will be saved? How many will be lost? How will these numbers compare to each other? We cannot say. How many who are saved will fall short of their calling in some way? Again, we have no clue.

Words like “some” and “many” do not give us a lot to work with, yet these are exactly the sorts of expressions we find used in scripture. What I am entirely confident about is that nothing man can do — or fail to do — can ever diminish the joy of God in the work of his Son, both finished and ongoing.

And like John, we should not allow our concern for those who don’t walk in the truth to diminish our joy in the “some” who do. Whatever those numbers may be.

1 comment :

  1. Here is some interesting research and perspective on why young people turn away from faith and in particular the Catholic Church. Some of these reasons are fairly universal.