Does Acts 13:48 Teach Divine, Hard Determinism?

In this context, ‘divine, hard determinism’ means the people had no choice but to believe and be saved. God ‘appointed’ them to eternal life.

As usual, I write to learn without being dogmatic. As I see things, I define my terms, as follows:

“Divine, hard determinism” in this context is different from philosophical hard determinism which excludes God. In a theological context, divine, hard determinism  means our choice for Christ is not in any way free; God has to cause us to believe after he so powerfully works on our hearts that we are born again before we can believe. This whole perspective is called monergism (mon– means “alone” and erg– means “work”). God alone causes salvation in the human. It seems also that his grace cannot be resisted: “irresistible grace.” 

“Divine, soft determinism” says that God’s grace and human free will cooperate. (Professional philosophers call this compatibility or compatibilism, but they exclude God, while I do not). But in the biblical context the cooperation comes only on God’s initiative, his prevenient grace working on people (prevenient literally means “coming” [veni-] and “before” [pre-]). Then people respond to God’s grace with saving faith. It is called synergism (literally “working with”), but only after God takes the initiative.

Libertarian free will says that people are free to choose or free to refuse.

Those definitions may not fit neat and tidy theology, but they are my understanding right now. 

Here in Acts it seems that v. 48 teaches that the Gentiles who believed had been appointed to eternal life, regardless of their free will and their faith. God acted on them as if they had no choice after they heard the gospel. It seems to support hard, divine determinism.

But what does v. 48 really say in context?

The translation is mine, but if you would like to see many others, please go to biblegateway.com. If you don’t read Greek, ignore the left column.

Beginning in v. 16, Paul is preaching a wonderful sermon in the synagogue in the city of Pisidian Antioch, during his and Barnabas’ first missionary journey. Yet, to save the word count, let’s begin with v. 38 to provide the more immediate context of v. 48. 

Greek Text

My Translation

38 γνωστὸν οὖν ἔστω ὑμῖν, ἄνδρες ἀδελφοί, ὅτι διὰ τούτου ὑμῖν ἄφεσις ἁμαρτιῶν καταγγέλλεται, [καὶ] ἀπὸ πάντων ὧν οὐκ ἠδυνήθητε ἐν νόμῳ Μωϋσέως δικαιωθῆναι, 39 ἐν τούτῳ πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων δικαιοῦται.

40 βλέπετε οὖν μὴ ἐπέλθῃ τὸ εἰρημένον ἐν τοῖς προφήταις·

41 ἴδετε, οἱ καταφρονηταί, 
καὶ θαυμάσατε καὶ ἀφανίσθητε,
ὅτι ἔργον ἐργάζομαι ἐγὼ ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις ὑμῶν, ἔργον ὃ οὐ μὴ πιστεύσητε ἐάν τις ἐκδιηγῆται ὑμῖν.

42 Ἐξιόντων δὲ αὐτῶν παρεκάλουν εἰς τὸ μεταξὺ σάββατον λαληθῆναι αὐτοῖς τὰ ῥήματα ταῦτα. 43 λυθείσης δὲ τῆς συναγωγῆς ἠκολούθησαν πολλοὶ τῶν Ἰουδαίων καὶ τῶν σεβομένων προσηλύτων τῷ Παύλῳ καὶ τῷ Βαρναβᾷ, οἵτινες προσλαλοῦντες αὐτοῖς ἔπειθον αὐτοὺς προσμένειν τῇ χάριτι τοῦ θεοῦ. 

44 Τῷ δὲ ἐρχομένῳ σαββάτῳ σχεδὸν πᾶσα ἡ πόλις συνήχθη ἀκοῦσαι τὸν λόγον τοῦ κυρίου. 45 ἰδόντες δὲ οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι τοὺς ὄχλους ἐπλήσθησαν ζήλου καὶ ἀντέλεγον τοῖς ὑπὸ Παύλου λαλουμένοις βλασφημοῦντες. 46 παρρησιασάμενοί τε ὁ Παῦλος καὶ ὁ Βαρναβᾶς εἶπαν· ὑμῖν ἦν ἀναγκαῖον πρῶτον λαληθῆναι τὸν λόγον τοῦ θεοῦ· ἐπειδὴ ἀπωθεῖσθε αὐτὸν καὶ οὐκ ἀξίους κρίνετε ἑαυτοὺς τῆς αἰωνίου ζωῆς, ἰδοὺ στρεφόμεθα εἰς τὰ ἔθνη. 47 οὕτως γὰρ ἐντέταλται ἡμῖν ὁ κύριος·

τέθεικά σε εἰς φῶς ἐθνῶν
τοῦ εἶναί σε εἰς σωτηρίαν ἕως ἐσχάτου τῆς γῆς.

48 Ἀκούοντα δὲ τὰ ἔθνη ἔχαιρον καὶ ἐδόξαζον τὸν λόγον τοῦ κυρίου καὶ ἐπίστευσαν ὅσοι ἦσαν τεταγμένοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον·

 49 διεφέρετο δὲ ὁ λόγος τοῦ κυρίου δι’ ὅλης τῆς χώρας.

 50 οἱ δὲ Ἰουδαῖοι παρώτρυναν τὰς σεβομένας γυναῖκας τὰς εὐσχήμονας καὶ τοὺς πρώτους τῆς πόλεως καὶ ἐπήγειραν διωγμὸν ἐπὶ τὸν Παῦλον καὶ Βαρναβᾶν καὶ ἐξέβαλον αὐτοὺς ἀπὸ τῶν ὁρίων αὐτῶν. 51 οἱ δὲ ἐκτιναξάμενοι τὸν κονιορτὸν τῶν ποδῶν ἐπ’ αὐτοὺς ἦλθον εἰς Ἰκόνιον,

52 οἵ τε μαθηταὶ ἐπληροῦντο χαρᾶς καὶ πνεύματος ἁγίου.

38 Men and women and brothers and sisters! Let it therefore be known to you that through this one the forgiveness of sins is announced to you. 39 By this one everyone who believes is justified from all the things you were not able to be justified by the law of Moses.

40 Watch therefore that what was spoken by the prophets does not come upon you:

41 ‘Look, scoffers! Marvel and vanish! Because I work a work in your days, a work which you shall not believe even if someone were to explain it to you!’” [Hab. 1:5]

42 While they were exiting, they encouraged them to speak these words to them the next Sabbath. 43 After the synagogue was dismissed, many Jews and worshipping proselytes followed Paul and Barnabas, who spoke with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

44 When the Sabbath came, almost the entire town assembled to hear the word of the Lord. 45 When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began speaking in opposition to the things spoken by Paul and were blaspheming. 46 But both Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, “It was necessary to speak the word of God to you first. Since then you reject it and do not judge yourselves worthy of eternal life, look! We are turning to the Gentiles, 47 for the Lord has commanded us in this manner:

‘I have appointed you as a light to the Gentiles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”  [Is. 49:6]

48 When the Gentiles heard, they glorified the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed to eternal life believed.

49 The word of the Lord spread around throughout the whole region.

50 But the Jews incited God-fearing, prominent women and leading men of the town and provoked persecution against Paul and Barnabas and ejected them from their district. 51 So, after they shook off the dust from their feet at them, they went to Iconium.

52 The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.

Commentary

Let’s begin and end the commentary with v. 48 (to save the word count, once again). If you would like to see more commentary, please click on this chapter at this website:

Acts 13

“all who were appointed”: “all” could be translated as “as many as.” But I don’t see this as crucial.

“appointed”: it comes from the Greek verb tassō (pronounced as it looks), and its basic meaning, depending on the context, is to “arrange,” “place,” “station,” or “assign,” and secondarily to “order, fix, determine, appoint.”

Another way of translating the Greek: “… and they believed, as many as had been appointed for eternal life.” It is used here in the perfect tense and passive voice; in other words, the Gentiles had been acted on in the past. We should translate it as passive, not as middle voice (“they appointed themselves”) because of the verb “to be” (ēsan). No translation at bible gateway uses the middle voice, but always passive. As a passive verb, we can call it the “divine passive,” which means that God is behind the scenes working on the hearers. He did this through his Spirit and the Spirit-empowered gospel. They may have also been acted on through their attendance at the synagogue, since these Gentiles were God-fearers and had previously heard Scripture read.

Further, they were acted on after Paul and Barnabas arrived, because the gospel went forth via or through the power of the Spirit. The gospel soaked the atmosphere. Yet some of the hearers (Jews) rejected or pushed it aside (vv. 46 and 50). Therefore God’s message can be resisted. But on the return visit it seems that more people received the gospel (Acts 14:21-25). So the people who were now appointed believed during the first visit, but more people will soon believe during the second visit. All of this shows that the Holy Spirit woos and calls the human spirit, with the initiation coming from God. Then the human responds in faith for salvation, and sometimes it takes time.

We may have a microcosm of Romans 9 playing out here. In that chapter, Paul is dealing with nations as represented by individuals, like Jacob and Esau. Which son of Isaac will bring forth the Messiah? Jacob or Esau? Which people will do this over the centuries? Israel (via Jacob) or Edom (via Esau)? God chose Israel. Here in Acts 13:48, as a class, these Gentiles were appointed, while as a class the Jews were not at this time, though on Paul and Barnabas’s return, it seems that more will accept the gospel. God chose the Gentiles this time, which is why Paul quotes Isaiah 49:6. We should therefore be careful about building a universal case of God appointing individuals to eternal life without their receiving the word by faith. God used the gospel so that they could believe. Gospel first, faith second.

Any interpretation that says these Gentiles were unconditionally saved before the foundation of the world goes beyond what this text says. Any interpretation which says that those who did not respond can never resist God’s grace so therefore they were not appointed goes beyond what the text says. The Jewish leadership was filled with jealousy. They resisted the call of the gospel. God’s grace and gracious invitation can be resisted. Any interpretation that says the Gentiles were born again before they believed goes beyond the text. 

And once you respond to the gospel through your gospel-inspired faith, then of course you were appointed, but it does not follow that the others were not appointed. Verse 48 all the way to v. 50 merely affirms that the others resisted the call of the gospel because of other internal issues, like jealousy or a stubborn will to hold on to their old religion. Free will is a gift of God, but free will can be burdened by vice and blindness and can resist the call of God.

The gospel had already gone forth throughout Pisidian Antioch; the gospel had already entered the hearts and minds of Jews and Gentiles, but the Jews resisted it, while the Gentiles accepted it. We cannot overlook the sufficiency of the Spirit-empowered gospel to effect salvation in the hearers here in this city, as they respond in faith.

Commentator Keener:

This choosing of gentiles balances God choosing Israel in [Acts] 13:17. Most ancient Jewish thinkers found human responsibility (as in Acts 13:46: judge for yourselves) compatible with divine sovereignty (as in 13:48); note the populist Pharisees in Josephus War 2.162-63; Ant. 13.172; 18:13. The eastern patristic emphasis on free will counters wider philosophic determinism (p. 346, note 1332)

Here is 13:17:

17 ὁ θεὸς τοῦ λαοῦ τούτου Ἰσραὴλ ἐξελέξατο τοὺς πατέρας ἡμῶν καὶ τὸν λαὸν ὕψωσεν ἐν τῇ παροικίᾳ ἐν γῇ Αἰγύπτου …. 

17 The God of this people, Israel, chose our ancestors and raised them up during their stay in the land of Egypt. ….

Note how God chose Israel as a collective or entire nation in their ancient past; yet now the door of choosing Gentiles to become members of the people of God is now open to them here in 13:48. I believe this is what Luke via Paul had in mind. The appointment is more collective than individualistic, as we saw in the paragraph, above, about Romans 9.

Marshall follows the line that the Greek verb tassō can mean “enrolled” or “inscribed” in a book:

The phrase [were ordained to eternal life] indicates that not all the Gentiles in town believed the gospel. It could be taken in the sense that God predestined certain of them to believe (cf. 16:14; 18:10). But it could also refer to those who had already put their trust in God in accordance with the Old Testament revelation of his grace and were enrolled in his people, or perhaps it means that the Gentiles believed in virtue of the fact that God’s plan of salvation included them. Whatever be the precise nuance of the words, there is no suggestion that they received eternal life independently of their own act of conscious faith. (p. 245)

In other words, the Gentiles still exercised their faith, when acted on by the gospel which is powerful enough to elicit a saving response of faith in Jesus, so that they may be enrolled or inscribed among the people of God.

Polhill summarizes how vv. 46-48 are programmatic for Paul. He never gave up on his fellow-Jews.

But he [Paul] never gave up on his fellow Jews. It was very much the problem he wrestled with in Rom 9–11. In spite of the overwhelming rejection of the gospel by his own people, Paul could not bring himself to believe that the rejection was final and that God had deserted them. His great successes in witness were indeed among the Gentiles, but he never abandoned his witness to Jews. The ambiguity of the witness to the Jews persists to the very end of Acts and is never definitively settled (cf. 28:17–28). The contemporary church can learn from Paul’s persistence. His actions caution against a mission policy that only targets those who are most receptive to the gospel message. (Comment on vv. 46-48)

It was a painful for him to confront such hostility from them (Rom. 9:1-5). But he never gave up on them!

Conclusion

In my view, people cannot strut into God’s kingdom unassisted by the Spirit-energized word of God in some form (even a dream of Jesus, as Muslims are now getting), but they can reject the Spirit-energized word of God without converting to Christ. They have enough free will to reject it, but not enough free will to accept it. They need divine help to accept it. And in Pisidian Antioch Gentiles got it from the Spirit and the word through Paul and Barnabas. And no doubt the reading of the law and prophets before the two missionaries got there softened and opened their hearts as well.

In my view, Luke is referring to two people groups: Jews and Gentiles. The Jews resisted, so they did not believe and were appointed to eternal life. In contrast, the Gentiles celebrated the message of the Lord (the gospel) because they were appointed to eternal life. How so? They heard the gospel first, as the context says, and they believed. As a collective, Gentiles were appointed. God was showing mercy on the Gentiles, in contrast to the resistant Jews.

But we can also talk about the individuals within the two groups.

In these equations the arrows means “leads to”:

The Spirit + The Word → People’s Response with Saving Faith → Salvation

The Spirit + the Word → No Response with Saving Faith → No Salvation

The Spirit woos through the word. People then respond with saving faith, which leads to salvation, if their hearts are open. They can resist it if their hearts are closed, as did the Jews at that time. They have libertarian free will in ordinary things of life, but their libertarian free will is not enough to save them. They need grace through saving faith, which is sparked or prompted by grace which is found in the gospel.

This is so clear from the entire context surrounding 13:48.

Therefore, divine, hard determinism does not adequately explain 13:48 because humans have to open their hearts to the gospel and believe in Christ. To respond, their faith is involved. Divine, soft determinism or synergism, but first by prevenient grace, is the best explanation to solve the problem posed by v. 48.

RELATED

Acts 13

What Is Calling and Election?

What Do Romans 8:28-30 and 10:8-13 Teach about Predestination?

SOURCES

Keener, Craig, S. Acts. New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge UP, 2020.

Marshall, I. Howard. Acts. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries. Tyndale, 1980.

Parsons, Mikeal C. and Martin M. Culy. Acts. A Handbook on the Greek Text. Baylor, UP, 2003.

Polhill, John B. Acts. New American Commentary. Vol. 26. Broadman and Holman, 1992.

 

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