Does God Lie? Faith then Elect or Elect then Faith. By Melvin R. Nelson. Xulon Press, 2007. 257 pp. Paper, $16.99.
One of the central questions in the Calvinism debate is whether God has a group of people called his “elect” that have not yet exercised faith in Christ. Does faith come before election or does election precede faith? Melvin Nelson answers both questions yes and no while proffering “a third option that leads to a new way to read the debated texts; one that says that we are free to choose while God gives us faith in Christ, our salvation” (p. 31). Confused? You are not alone. I found the book very confusing. I also found it repetitious and rambling. Yet, Nelson, a psychologist with “no formal theological training” (back cover), expands upon an important point I raised in my book The Other Side of Calvinism that helps us to correctly interpret some passages in John and Acts that are the mainstay of Calvinists. The main problem with the book is twofold: his presentation and his attempt to apply a truth to the entire NT.
Nelson calls his perspective on Calvinism “faith to faith” (obviously from Rom 1:17). He is no doubt correct that he has “not found any referenced work that teaches this view” (p. 27). He claims that his view “will modify three of the five points under TULIP, reject one point in full, and leave one intact with no change” (p. 31). The rejected point is Limited Atonement, which even some Calvinists discard; the intact point is Perseverance of the Saints, which Nelson wrongly equates with eternal security.
According to Nelson: “Many of the Hebrew people in Palestine at the time of Christ truly believed God before Christ came on the scene” (p. 56). These are the “elect,” and as such are “sheep” (John 10:26-29), “given to Christ” (John 6:37, 65, 17:6), and “drawn” by the Father (John 6:44, 45). Those outside of Palestine are “other sheep” (John 10:16) and “the children of God that were scattered abroad (John 11:52). The “elect” therefore included John the Baptist (John 1:32-33), the first disciples (John 1), devout men (Acts 2:5), the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:27), Cornelius (Acts 10:1), men that feared God (Acts 13:26), the Gentiles that were ordained to eternal life (Acts 13:48), Lydia (Acts 16:14), devout Greeks (Acts 17:4), Justus (Acts 18:7), many of the Corinthians (Acts 18:10), Apollos (Acts 18:24), and the twelve disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1-7).
During the transition from the OT to the NT, those that had a “faith relationship” with God were “handed over” or “drawn to” Christ (p. 70). They are God’s “elect” that “have yet to believe Christ, but who will do so without fail” (p. 83). So, faith in God comes before election to salvation but faith in Christ comes afterward.
Although we may disagree on semantics, this is all well and good. The problem, though, is that Nelson attempts to apply this teaching throughout the entire NT: “Just like OT saints who believe God, NT saints believe God and are given the promise, but now the promise fulfilled rather than the promise that was yet to come” (p. 105). The elect are “those who truly believe God” (p. 143). Election is verified “when we put our faith in Christ for salvation” (p. 147). And “God grants people to have faith in Christ if and only if they believe God” (p. 116).
So every time it refers to someone believing in the Pauline Epistles, Nelson ponders whether the object of belief is Christ or God. This results in some strained interpretations of the some passages in the Pauline Epistles like Rom 4:5, 24, 8:30; Gal 3:22; Eph 1:3-4; 1 Thess 1:4, 8-10; and 2 Thess 2:13-14. And Nelson never does explain what it means for someone in the Church Age to have faith in God. Millions of people certainly claim to believe in God. Many of these are no doubt sincere and devout. But without Christ they are religious, lost, and, according to Nelson, elect.
Like in Calvinism, the elect “will put their faith in Christ” (p. 143) because “to truly believe God leads to faith in Christ every time” (p. 215). But “when a person refuses to put their faith in Christ they make God a liar; so, they clearly did not, in fact, believe God in the first place.” This sounds strangely similar to Calvinists stating about the fifth point of Calvinism that if someone is really saved, one of the elect, then he will persevere in faith until the end of his life or he was not saved in the first place.
Nelson is also confusing when it comes to the question of the time that might elapse between believing in God and Christ. On the one hand, he says that “those who are saved believe God through faith in Christ” (p. 147), that “we cannot believe one without faith in the other” (p. 194), and that “God the Father cannot have one set of believers and the Son of God another” (p. 224). But on the other hand, he talks about a “time gap between belief in God and faith in Christ” (p. 108) and says that “for most people today faith in God and in God the Son take place almost simultaneously” (p. 138).
None of this refutes Calvinism, however, as Nelson himself recognizes: “I am almost certain that strict Calvinists will now say that believing God is caused by and comes from God too” (p. 80). Thus, we are still stuck with the same problems: Unconditional Election and Irresistible Grace.
And aside from its style and content, the book has other problems as well. Because there is very little introductory material on the Calvinism debate, the reader must be familiar with at least the basic history and doctrines of Calvinism. The book could also use some careful editing. Book titles mentioned in the text are underlined instead of italicized even though italics are used elsewhere in the text. However, book titles are italicized in the bibliography (except for the four books that were overlooked). Some books mentioned in the text are not included in the bibliography; some books mentioned in the text and included in the bibliography have incorrect titles or publication dates. And shouldn’t the subtitle end with a question mark?
Does God Lie? should also be much shorter, and for two reasons. First, as I have indicated above, Nelson should have just focused on John, Acts, and the transition from the OT to the NT. This alone would be a good antidote to the Calvinist interpretation of certain verses, especially in John’s Gospel. And second, the book appears much longer than it really is. There are unnecessary spaces between paragraphs, at the bottom of pages, at the beginning of chapters, and at the end of sections within a chapter. And nothing is really consistent. The lack of hyphenation also means that there is an inordinate amount of space between some words.
The bottom line is this: Due to the author’s attempt to apply his thesis to the entire NT, I can only recommend the first four chapters of this book.
Laurence M. Vance