Thwarting God?

If God orchestrates every detail of history, if he decided in advance all who would and wouldn’t be saved, and if his sovereign will cannot be thwarted under any circumstances — then what should we make of the following statement from Luke’s gospel?

All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.

Members of the Jewish religious establishment are generally depicted as the baddies in the gospel story. With few exceptions (namely, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea), they resist Jesus at every turn. But according to Luke, their resistance wasn’t what God had in mind. God had other plans for them.

You could argue this is a case of “double perspectives,” to borrow a phrase from John Piper. That, on one level, God wants the Pharisees to be saved, much in the same way he wants everyone to be saved. But this desire on God’s part amounts to little more than vague wishing, since it has no impact on the outcome. Meanwhile, on another level, God has sovereignly predestined the Pharisees to be the antagonistic reprobates they are.

But before you appeal to the “double perspectives” argument, take a closer look at the phrase “God’s purpose” (Greek, ten boulen tou theo). In the New Testament, the word boule is used exclusively in reference to God’s sovereign will — what he has decreed or decided should happen.

For example, Peter claims in Acts that Jesus was crucified because God’s “power and will [boule] had decided beforehand” that it should happen. Piper uses this very text to argue for meticulous sovereignty.

In Ephesians 1, Paul writes, “We were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity to the purpose [boule] of his will.”

So it would seem from Luke that God’s sovereign will — which predestines people and orchestrates history — can be resisted in some cases. What should we make of this?

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