The Basis of Counterfactual Repentance

A comment on “Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Molinism.”

In Acts 7, Stephen preaches a narrative that culminates in the prophetic witness concerning “the coming of the Righteous One” (v. 52).

In Acts 8:1 Saul was present to hear this, approving of Stephen’s execution. No doubt Saul was conversant with other Christian preaching as well, as he dragged Christians off to prison.

In Acts 8:26-40 the Ethiopian eunuch is converted through a simple Bible study.

But in Acts 9 Saul is converted by means which go beyond simple Bible study. God had to perform physical miracles, including seeing “light from heaven,” hearing Jesus’s voice, being struck blind, and getting healed from that blindness.

On the basis of this narrative, we could set forth a true hypothetical that parallels Jesus’s rebuke to the unbelieving Jews in Mt 11:21, a hypothetical that illustrates asymmetry of hardness of heart and guilt (thus grounding the rebuke), but accommodates the sufficiency of God’s converting grace for each and every conversion. Jesus could have said to Saul in Acts 9:

Woe to you, Saul! For if the Bible study that was presented to you by Stephen in Acts 7 had been presented to pagan Ethiopians, they would have repented.

Fact: Bible study hadn’t converted Saul up to that point, though he was certainly exposed to it (in his upbringing and recent experience).

Fact: Bible study would have been the means of converting at least some pagan Ethiopians, because it was the means of the eunuch’s conversion.

Fact: As an unbelieving Jew who rejected Christian preaching, Saul is therefore more guilty than the eunuch who accepted Christian preaching, and Jesus would be right to say so. Reflecting on his conversion experience, Saul confesses that he was the ‘foremost’ of sinners, and towards him Jesus was gracious to “display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).

Assumption: Both the eunuch and Saul were converted by God’s irresistible grace. The gracious influence is different in both cases because the stubbornness is different in both cases. But in each case, God’s grace is sufficient to ensure the outcome.

Fact: in the hypothetical scenario presented above, the same ‘mighty works’ are referred to: God’s gracious influence by means of a mere Bible study.

Fact: in the hypothetical scenario presented above, the same ‘mighty works’ that fail to convert Saul succeed in converting the eunuch.

Conclusion: the means needed to eventually convert Saul are greater than the means needed to convert the eunuch (thus preserving asymmetry of guilt and wickedness), but in each case God’s grace is sufficient to ensure the salvific outcome (thus preserving God’s irresistible grace). In short, the Bible study that proved irresistible in the eunuch’s context was resistible in Saul’s context, and so stronger means were needed (and in Saul’s case, they were graciously supplied).

Similarly, when Jesus says to the unbelieving Jews of his day:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. (Matthew 11:21)

Jesus doesn’t need to be taken as implying, “Chorazin, you guys are so bad, that the irresistible grace that I could have used to convert Tyre and Sidon hasn’t worked with you!” On that view, ‘irresistible grace’ is resistible in some contexts (Chorazin) but not in others (Tyre and Sidon). That indeed seems contradictory. But instead Jesus can be taken as implying, “Chorazin, you guys are so bad, that the mighty works which would be irresistible for Tyre and Sidon prove resistible for you.”

God uses stronger means for stronger sinners, because they are stronger sinners. The fact that lesser means would succeed with others, while they fail with us, would be a reflection upon us. If you can’t be converted through a Bible study, but only through miraculous voices and blindness, God’s grace will be up to the task (as always). But then you should praise God that he persevered with you in the midst of your greater depravity and hard-hearted spiritual ignorance (as Paul does in 1 Timothy 1:15-16).

All of this helps us answer an objection to the Calvinistic doctrine of irresistible grace, cited at the link above:

But there is another problem with regards to the folks of Tyre. Neither the people of Chorazin and Tyre actually repented. On Calvinism, we could safely conclude neither were given irresistible grace, because had they being given irresistible grace, they would repent. But the verse gives us the counter-fact: the people of Tyre would have repented, given the same mighty works. So how is it that Tyre would have repented without irresistible grace? On Calvinism, we are left with the contradiction that irresistible grace both is and is not necessary for repentance.

It’s not “that Tyre would have repented without irresistible grace.” It’s that the works that would have been irresistible in Tyre’s context are resistible in Chorazin’s context. Thus the woe pronounced on Chorazin and the other cities in Jesus’s day, for rejecting Jesus’s preaching and miracles.