Calvinism And Free Will: An Exegetical Vindication of Matthew 23:37

Arminians have long pointed to Matthew 23:37 to respond to the Calvinist doctrines of determinism, limited atonement, and irresistible grace.

Calvinism teaches that Christ died only for the elect (particular atonement), that he has decreed whatsoever shall come to pass in human history (determinism- no human free will as pertains to true contingencies), and that man has nothing to do with his own salvation (monergism), which necessitates their doctrine of irresistible grace.

Matt. 23:37 poses serious problems for all of these doctrinal positions. It would seem that though Christ genuinely desired the salvation of the Jews, they were not saved. They were not saved because they were unwilling. If this be the case, then Calvinism cannot stand. Why?

Calvinism believes in unconditional election and reprobation. God determined from all eternity who would be saved and who would be damned. This determination was unconditional. This choice was according to God’s good pleasure. It pleased God to unconditionally elect some for eternal life. It also pleased God to irrevocably reprobate others to eternal punishment [this may be an active or passive reprobation]. Arminians feel that any such choice, if truly unconditional, would make God arbitrary. Very few Calvinists want to claim such a word as a description of God. They contend that God’s choice was not arbitrary but was still unconditional. If God’s choice was not arbitrary, then he must have had some reason for choosing one and rejecting the other. The Calvinist avoids this conclusion by appealing to God’s inscrutable counsel. God had a reason, but it had nothing to do with those being chosen or rejected, and it is simply beyond our understanding. This is the approach taken by Peterson and Williams in Why I Am Not An Arminian. They state, “His gracious choosing ultimately transcends our reason, but it is not arbitrary.” (pg. 66) The Arminian finds this unacceptable given the clear Biblical assertion that one is saved or rejected based on whether or not that person believes the gospel or continues in unbelief (Jn. 3:16-18, 36). The Arminian contends as strongly as the Calvinist for the Biblical doctrine of election, but believes that God’s decision to elect is based on the free response of his creatures to either accept or reject the gift of salvation.

Matt. 23:37 lines up perfectly with the Arminian view. In the Arminian view God genuinely desires that all of his creatures be saved (see also Ezk. 18:31, 32; 33:10, 11; 1 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:3). If they are not saved, it is due to their own refusal of God’s gracious gift, and not because God has unconditionally determined from all eternity to damn them (Hosea 11:1-2; Jer. 13:15-17; Rom. 10:21; Heb. 3:7-13). The Calvinist feels that determinism is the only way to reconcile human choices with God’s sovereignty. There is no room for libertarian free will in their theology. Some Calvinists then deal with these passages by dividing God’s will into parts which are plainly contradictory. They maintain that God does not desire the eternal death of the wicked while at the same time unconditionally determining from all eternity that some should remain wicked, never know his saving grace, and perish eternally, according to his good pleasure. Here is pictured a God who stretches his hands out to the perishing while refusing to give them the grace they need to be saved. He can say that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, while secretly desiring and guaranteeing their eternal death. The Arminian points out the inherent façade and is met with responses like, “God’s ways and thoughts are high above ours; his counsel is inscrutable”, or “Who are you O’ man to talk back to God?” etc. John Wesley summed up the problem well,

Our blessed Lord does indisputably command and invite “all men everywhere to repent” [Acts 17:30]. He calleth all. He sends his ambassadors in his name, “to preach the gospel to every creature” [Mark 16:15]. He himself “preached deliverance to the captives” [Luke 4:18] without any hint of restriction or limitation. But now, in what manner do you represent him while he is employed in this work? You suppose him to be standing at the prison doors, having the keys thereof in his hands, and to be continually inviting the prisoners to come forth, commanding them to accept of that invitation, urging every motive which can possibly induce them to comply with that command; adding the most precious promises, if they obey; the most dreadful threatenings, if they obey not. And all this time you suppose him to be unalterably determined in himself never to open the doors for him, even while he is crying, “Come ye, come ye, from that evil place. For why will ye die, O house of Israel?” [cf. Ezek. 18:31]. “Why” (might one of them reply), “because we cannot help it. We cannot help ourselves, and thou wilt not help us. It is not in our power to break the gates of brass [cf. Ps. 107:16], and it is not thy pleasure to open them. Why will we die? We must die, because it is not thy will to save us.” Alas, my brethren, what kind of sincerity is this which you ascribe to God our Saviour?” (Excerpt from Predestination Calmly Considered; Readings in the History of Christian Theology, Volume 2, pg. 97)

Consider the Lord’s words to Judah in Jeremiah 13:15-17,

Hear and pay attention, do not be arrogant, for the LORD has spoken. Give glory to the LORD your God before he brings the darkness…But if you do not listen, I will weep in secret because of your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly, overflowing with tears, because the LORD’s flock will be taken captive.

With regards to this passage, Walls and Dongell make the following observation,

Knowing that Judah did not turn and listen, the Calvinist concludes that God had already chosen to withhold his transforming grace from them, though he could easily have granted it. So while the text seems to identify Judah’s pride as the root cause of punishment, the Calvinist instead concludes that Judah’s ability to repent depends on God’s eternally fixed plan. Again, although the text seems to identify salvation as God’s deepest desire, the Calvinist must conclude that at a deeper level God never intended to bestow transforming grace on Jeremiah’s hearers. In other words, the true intentions of God cannot be discerned from his words. (Why I Am Not A Calvinist, pg. 57- emphasis in original)

It would seem that some Calvinist are rather uncomfortable with appealing solely to contradictory wills within God, and prefer rather to undertake exegetical wrangling in order to conform these passages to the tenets of Calvinist theology. This is the approach taken by James White in The Potter’s Freedom. His handling of Matthew 23:37 is revealing, and ultimately does more harm than good for his position.

In Chapter 6, Mr. White attempts to explain away what he refers to as Norman Geisler’s “Big Three” verses to which he makes constant appeal in his book, Chosen But Free (Matt. 23:37; 1 Tim. 2:4; and 2 Pet. 3:9). White’s treatment of Christ’s lament over Jerusalem in Matt. 23:37 is not only problematic, but detrimental to his Calvinism. The passage reads, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” This passage seems to plainly indicate that Christ genuinely desired the salvation of the Jews (cf. Ezk. 18:30-32; 33:11), but their unwillingness prevented him from saving them.

Mr. White wastes no time in helping us understand that we have it all wrong, and this should be very plain to us if we would just focus very hard on the context. The passage in question comes after a lengthy rebuke of the Pharisees and Scribes for being blind guides, hypocrites, etc. Therefore, Mr. White concludes that when Jesus says “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem”, he is not speaking of the Jews in general, or Jerusalem personified, but the leaders of Jerusalem (the hypocritical Pharisees and Scribes), and saying that he wanted to gather their children (in some sense, then, the Jews are the Pharisee’s and Scribe’s children?), but these corrupt leaders were not willing (to let Jesus gather “their”, i.e. the Pharisee’s and Scribe’s) children to himself, and therefore it was not the children themselves that were not willing. Mr. White concludes, “Jesus speaks to the leaders about their children that they, the leaders, would not allow him to ‘gather’…This one consideration alone renders the passage useless for the Arminian seeking to establish freewillism.” (pg. 138 )

This “exegesis” is problematic for several reasons. First, it is hard to fit the further comments made by Jesus of these people (in verses 38, and 39) with the idea that Christ is only addressing these corrupt leaders. It is to the same people that Christ says, “For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” (vs.39) If Mr. White’s interpretation is accurate, then this statement must also be directed to the wicked Scribes and Pharisees. Were they the same who would call him “Blessed” when they saw him again? Such an interpretation does not seem to fit the historical context, for the Scribes and Pharisees certainly saw Christ again after this event and continued to be hostile towards his ministry to the point of securing his death. If Christ is speaking of the final restoration of Israel, as many scholars believe, then surely all of the people of Jerusalem are in view and not just the Scribes and Pharisees. Again, if Christ was addressing the Scribes and Pharisees that he had just rebuked, it is quite clear that none of them survived to see Israel’s final restoration. Even If we apply these passages to the triumphal entry (as very few scholars seem willing to do), it was the common people who called him “blessed”, and the Pharisees who called on Christ to rebuke them. Mr. White does not even address these verses in his book.

Second, this same lament is recorded in Luke 13:34-35 in a completely different context; one which will not so easily lead to Mr. White’s conclusions (in Luke, the Pharisees are trying to protect Jesus from Herod). Mr. White does not even mention the Luke account.

Third, there is no exegetical warrant for making such a strong distinction between “Jerusalem” and the “children” of Jerusalem. Such was a common use of Biblical language to use two terms to describe the same object. In the Old Testament we find God both calling his people “Israel” and the “children of Israel”. Consider the word usage in Jeremiah Chapter 4,

At that time this people and Jerusalem will be told, “A scorching wind from the barren heights in the desert blows toward my people, but not to winnow or cleanse; a wind too strong for that comes from me. Now I pronounce my judgments against them…O Jerusalem, wash the evil from your heart and be saved…Tell this to the nations, proclaim it in Jerusalem…Your own conduct and actions have brought this upon you. This is your punishment…My people are fools; they do not know me. They are senseless children; they have no understanding. (11, 14, 16, 18, 22, NIV-emphasis mine)

It is clear that, in these passages, the Lord speaks to the city, the people, and the children as the same entity. When Jeremiah speaks of Jerusalem it is an obvious personification of those who live within the city, for he says of Jerusalem, “wash the evil from your heart”. Just as in Jeremiah’s day, the city is about to be destroyed due to the sin of its people. These are the very people whom the Lord desired to save. Their destruction is deserved due to their continual rebellion. They were “unwilling” to submit to their Lord, but instead killed those sent to them who were calling them to repentance. They will compound these sins by rejecting and killing the very Son of God. The city will therefore suffer destruction, and the rebellious “children”, unless they repent, will suffer the loss of their eternal souls,

When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation. (NAS- Luke 19:41-44-emphasis mine).

Notice that in this parallel lament Christ says that the city’s enemies will level “you” and “your children within you”. If we assume again that “Jerusalem” is shorthand for the leaders of Jerusalem, then we need to explain how “your children” can be within these corrupt leaders [Jerusalem]. Obviously, as in Matt. 23:37, Jerusalem is personified, and is not a reference to leaders as contrasted with the common people of the city.

The fourth and most glaring problem comes from the fact that if we accept Mr. White’s “exegesis”, it creates an even bigger problem for his Reformed doctrines. Remember, according to Calvinism, God is sovereign over his creatures to such an extent that they have nothing to do with their own salvation (monergism). When God desires to save his elect, nothing can stop him, not even the unwillingness of the rebellious sinner (God will simply “make” him “willing”). Man can do nothing to thwart God’s saving purposes, they are irresistible. This is the very doctrine that Mr. White is trying to preserve with his “exegesis” of Matt. 23:37. But does he succeed?

Listen again to Mr. White’s explanation, “Jesus speaks to the leaders about their children that they, the leaders, would not allow him to ‘gather’.” (pg. 138 ) He reinforces this by connecting it to a previous verse [13], “But woe to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you shut off the kingdom of heaven from the people; for you do not enter in yourselves, nor do you allow those who are entering to go in.” (pg. 138 ) Mr. White, then, trades one problem in for another, for the text plainly states that the Pharisees and Scribes were not allowing those who were entering to go in!! Now we have really opened a can of worms! If those who are saved are the ones that God has unconditionally elected from all eternity, how could anyone, including the Scribes and Pharisees, prevent them from entering in? How could they possibly “shut off the kingdom of heaven” from them? How could anyone “not allow [Jesus] to gather” them to himself? If they are the elect, then nobody can effectively “shut off the kingdom” from them; and if they are reprobates, it is God who has “shut off the kingdom” from them (by refusing them his saving grace), and not the Pharisees! And if they are reprobates without hope (for God has eternally and unconditionally decreed to reject them), then in what sense could Christ possibly have “longed” to gather them unto himself? Perhaps Mr. White did not think through the ramifications of his conclusions, or perhaps he just hoped that we would not. Whether we accept the traditional Arminian interpretation, or Mr. White’s proposed exegesis, it would seem that Calvinism still suffers a fatal blow.