The Manliest of the Theologies: Mark 15:1–39

I opened my sermon this past Sunday with this quote from Mike Wittmer’s book Christ Alone:

Critiquing Rob Bell’s Love Wins, Mike Wittmer writes,

 A real rescue beats an imaginary rescue every day of the week, because it involves actual risk. . . . It’s one thing to pretend that we’re drowning or being chased by bad guys; it’s entirely different to actually be lost at sea or dodging bullets. Real-life rescues always have the most at stake (142–43).

Wittmer continues by explaining that Bell’s view

Makes an exceptionally bland story. There is no drama. No deep conflict requiring resolution. No compelling need for a satisfying denouement. Where is the insurmountable problem that must be overcome? Where’s the cliff we might fall off? Where’s the foreshadowed death that can be avoided only by intervention from the outside? Nothing is ever really at stake in Bell’s tale of limitless happy endings. It has even less suspense than a child’s bedtime story. . . .

I appreciate that the looming threat of hell can make us uncomfortable, but if we eliminate this from the Scriptures we deflate the true and even more astonishing biblical story. A world without the real possibility of hell, of eternal death, would increasingly resemble the contrived world of the film The Truman Show, comically and tragically unrealistic. If the cross teaches us anything, it’s that this is a wild, dangerous world. If the Son of God can be crucified, then anything is possible here. A world which killed Jesus may well have a large number of murderers headed for hell. The stakes are that hight (145­–46).


We need to see that we have the real story. We need to feel what G. K. Chesterton writes when he says, “In a thrilling novel (that purely Christian product) the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals” (Orthodoxy, 206).

Main Point

When the world was at stake the Father gave the Son that the world might be redeemed. Chesterton again, “Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point—and does not break” (Orthodoxy, 209).

Chesterton says that Christianity’s “main advantage is that it is the most adventurous and manly of all theologies” (Orthodoxy, 201).

To read of the manliness of Christ and the courage of God in putting everything on the line by not sparing his own Son, see Mark 15:1–39. Here’s my attempt to exposit the passage: Mark 15:1–39, “Crucified, Dead, and Buried.”

Join the Conversation


  1. But isn’t basic Reformed theology also just like The Truman Show? Everything is preordained, everthing that happens is directed from above. Outcomes are predetermined. What kind of real glory does God get if the glory is pre-arranged by God?

    1. RD,

      You’re thinking of a common caricature of reformed theology.

      Ephesians 1:11 really does say that God works everything according to the counsel of his will. God really is sovereign. Totally. And everything really is predestined. Down to the neutrons and the little sprays of foam on the ocean where no one is right now.

      But the Bible also teaches that human beings really are responsible for their actions.

      Reformed theology preserves the mystery of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. Reformed theology doesn’t try to “solve” the mystery by taking away from divine sovereignty, as arminianism does, nor does reformed theology try to “solve” the mystery by taking away from human responsibility, as hyper-calvinism does.

      If you want both sides of the equation, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, I think you’ll find that what you want is reformed theology.



      1. Ahhhh, but Jim, if everything- EVERYTHING -is really predetermined by God, how can we really have personal responsibility? My response is predestined, beyond my control. Every action I take in my life has been predetermined according to God’s predetermined plan. Where does my responsibility come into play?

        When God hardened the Pharoah’s heart, thus blocking him from responding appropriately to Moses’ demands (set my people free!), how is Pharoah responsible?

        1. You sound like the guy raising the questions Paul is answering in Romans 3 and 9!

          For Paul’s answer, see Romans 9:14–23. I agree with him.

          Paul also addresses these questions in Romans 3:5–8, and he’s asserting that God’s sovereignty over all things does not make him unrighteous when he judges us and visits wrath (3:5), even if our unrighteousness makes God’s justice shine more brightly, which it does–God will judge the world (3:6). Look at Romans 3:7, “if through my lie God’s truth abounds to his glory, why am I still being condemned as a sinner?” Paul adds another false implication of this before giving his answer. To the false implication that human responsibility is nullified by God’s sovereignty (Rom 3:7), Paul adds the false implication that we should do evil to cause more good in the first part of 3:8. His answer to these false implications, which he is rejecting, is at the end of 3:8, “Their condemnation is just.”

          This affirms that those who do evil, even though God is sovereign over that evil (see Rom 3:4), will be condemned justly. Further, this does not imply that God is unjust, nor does it imply that people should do more evil in an attempt to cause more good.

          Paul is maintaining divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and he’s rejecting attempts to trim down either side of the tension.



          1. Jim,

            Well, I don’t interpret these verses in quite the same way that you do (if you see them as defending God as deterministic). I think Paul’s argument here is that human beings are sinful, that throughout the course of their lives they act in sinful ways. Our sinfulness thus makes God’s glorious mercy appear that much greater. A good legal mind might try to turn this fact to a legal advantage by arguing that because mankind’s sinfulness makes God’s glory all the greater, that sinful mankind is actually doing God a kind of service, showing increased glory from increased sin (Rom 3:5-8 “if our unrighteousness serves to show God’s righteousness…). Paul is saying, absolutely not!

            Another point Paul is making is that the greater the sin that God forgives, the greater that God’s mercy is displayed. Following the crafty legal mindset, then, why not sin BIG so that God can forgive BIG?! The bigger our sin, the bigger God’s mercy and the greater the glory that God receives. As sinners we are actually serving to bring God greater glory, so how can our sin really be such a bad thing?? In fact, if you really think about it, our sin is really a GOOD thing. Again, Paul is putting a lid on this kind of legalistic wrangling.

            But I don’t think these verses should be used to defend God deterministic. Isn’t the idea of a completely deterministic God a bit like the WWF? Good guys and bad guys are in the ring, grappling and heaving, struggling mightily against one another. But the outcome is already settled; it’s predetermined from the start, right down to the actual wrestling moves that are executed by each opponent. It isn’t real. It’s a play. And though a play can be entertaining, and contain moral lessons and offer excitement, it lacks authenticity simply because it is so controlled.

            If God manipulates the creation, working it out so that he gets glory, is that authentic glory?

            Consider: You and your son are at the playground when a kid falls off the top of the sliding board. On his own – with no prompting from you – your son rushes over to him and helps him up. The child’s mom praises your son for his helpfulness and, in turn, praises you as his father, for raising such a thoughtful son. You are, in a sense, glorified (and very proud) because your son acted on his own to assist the child.

            But, would you really be glorified if while at the playground YOU walked up behind the child and pushed him off the top of the slide, then made your son go assist him so that the child’s mom would see the assistance and thus give your son, and you, praise? Isn’t that hollow glory? Glory that comes only when you have to force it to happen isn’t really glory, is it?

            Blessings to you, too, my friend


  2. RD,

    Again, your analogy presents a caricature b/c it doesn’t allow for primary and secondary causation and other necessary nuances.

    I would invite you to consider Romans 3:4, where Paul quotes Psalm 51 on the point that people are sinners so that God will be justified.

    Knowing that this indicates that God is sovereign even over human sin, Paul writes Romans 3:5–8 to reject false implications of God’s sovereignty:
    It does not mean God is unjust.
    It does not mean we are not responsible.
    It does not mean we should do more evil so more good will come.

    God is sovereign. Humans are responsible. Paul resumes this train of thought in Romans 9:14–23.



    1. They really had a choice; they really are responsible for it; and God really has exercised absolute predestinating sovereignty over all that has happened in this little world of his.

      Are you willing to let the tension between God’s sovereignty and humanity’s responsibility stand?

      The fact that we cannot reconcile the tension is the point! It is beyond us, but it does not contradict itself.

  3. Well, you know that I am not at all opposed to recognizing that there are mysteries to the nature of God and mysteries to the faith. I do have trouble with the notion that God can truly give free will while at the same time determining what the results are going to be.

    If you decide to stop for a Starbucks on the way home, did you decide or did God make you do it? If God sovereignly directs you to buy a latte, then you aren’t really involved in the decision.

    Could you have married someone other than your wife? Did you really have a choice in that decision? Did she?

    Taken further, do your children really have a choice as to whether they will be saved or not? Can they, independently – exercising their own freedom of choice – really choose to accept Christ, or will God simply decide whether they will go to heaven?

    The distinction between foreknowledge and determinism is important, I believe. If God’s sovereignty means that he is in heaven pulling the control levers, then we are merely pawns. How can we really have any real responsibility?

    1. RD,

      Well, anything can happen at that Starbucks, and every one of my days is written in God’s book before one of them comes to be (Ps 139), so if a suicide bomber kills everyone in the Starbucks that day, I think my spur of the moment decision to stop in was ordained from before the foundation of the world.

      Again, if Jeremiah can say that the Lord knew him before he formed him in the womb, I think that it was appointed for Jeremiah’s mommy and daddy to marry. Ditto with me and my sweet wife. I’m so glad the Lord gave me this good gift! And it was awfully fun courting her and hoping she would indeed be the one : ). Praise God, we both chose exactly what God had predestined for us.

      Isn’t the God you believe in big enough to do this thing called “concursus” where it so happens that what he has predestined is exactly what we want to choose?

      Yes. My kids will choose. God is sovereign in their salvation. We pray the Lord will save them. If he does so, our prayers will be part of the means he appointed to bring about the end he predestined.

      I’d love to walk through 2 Sam 15–17 with you, where David prays that God would thwart the good counsel of Ahithophel, then he sends Hushai into the city to do just that, then after Hushai does it the narrator of Samuel tells us that God had ordained that things would play out this way to bring evil on Absalom.

      It’s all true: God predestined it. David prayed for it. He had to act, and he had to send Hushai into the fray.

      Glory to God, for from him and through him and to him are all things (Rom 11:33–36),


  4. Jim,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I appreciate it very much. As always, you offer a lot to consider.

    You made an interesting statement in your post above when you praised God that you and your wife both chose exactly what God had predestined for you with regard to your being husband and wife. If God predestined it, could you have chosen otherwise?

    1. The thing about choice/free will is that has the power to choose, not the power to create.

      We choose what we want most. What we want most is conditioned by many things we don’t choose, like what gender the Lord gave us, where we were born, who are parents were, what they taught us, etc.

      So theoretically I could choose something I don’t want, but I would never choose it because I don’t want it.

      If the desires of a man’s heart are like streams of water directed by the Lord, and that’s the way Proverbs says things are (Prov 21:1), then the Lord directs what a man wants and thus what he chooses.

      I wanted my wife to marry me more than anything else. I wanted her and no one else. Praise God she wanted the same thing.

      God predestined it, and we chose it. We chose what we wanted most. “From him and to him and through him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen” (Rom 11:36).

  5. Free will goes far beyond human ability/freedom to choose between a set of options. It seems to me that God has imbued the entire created order with the agency of free will. Molecules have free will, animals, tectonic plates, storm fronts, human cells, etc all have free will. That’s not to say that God doesn’t intervene at times and for his specific purposes, but I don’t see evidence that God is operating some cosmic controls in heaven that determines all outcomes.

    The question I asked about deciding to ask your wife to marry you is a small example of free will vs determinism. If your decision matters – if it’s authentic, and unmanipulated – then you have both the opportunity to choose to obey God’s will or to deny it. If I am following the logic you are putting forth (that God predetermines everything in the universe, and when we make choices we are merely choosing to agree with what he’s already ordained) then we can never disobey God. The nature of disobedience is to choose to do something that is opposed to a specific directive or instruction. If choices are determined by God does this mean that God determined/ordained the fall? And if God predetermined the fall then why did God bother to tell Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree? If he had determined that they would (or that they SHOULD) eat the forbidden fruit, why instruct them to do otherwise? And why punish disobedience if there is no other real choice in the matter? If Adam and Eve never could have obeyed God, then they never were responsible.

    Back to the Pharoah of the exodus. Did Pharoah have free will? Could he have obeyed God and let the Israelites go? According to at least a portion of the account, he clearly has no choice in the matter. Though Moses gives him a direct command from God, God hardens Pharoah’s heart so that he CAN’T respond in obedience. If God prevents him from obeying how can we say that Pharoah has responsibility? He’s merely doing what God programmed him to do. He’s responding exactly the way that God determined him to act.

    1. RD,

      Do you really think that things that don’t have brains (tectonic plates?) make choices?

      On the questions you ask in the second paragraph, I refer you back to my earlier comments on the nature of the will — it chooses, it doesn’t create new options that aren’t on the existing list of choices — and on Rom 3 and 9.

      On Pharaoh, he did exactly what he wanted to do. He chose what he wanted. It just so happened that what Pharaoh wanted was also what God wanted, and God hardened him in his desires and choices. Have you read my section on that portion of Exodus in GGSTJ?



  6. As I say, free will goes beyond making decisions or choosing from a set of options. It is freedom of response. No, tectonic plates don’t have cognitive ability (clearly), but they are completely free to act and respond to outside causes and effects and stimuli. There is freedom of response built in to the entire universe. God put the universe together to operate this way.

    If I understand you correctly, you believe that God is causing the draught that Texas is enduring at the moment. My view is that the draught is the result of natural atmospheric conditions that are manifested as the result of various external conditions (atmospheric impacts from pollution, oceanic warming trends, high pressure systems that stall and impact the jet stream, etc). Does God determine and control this? I don’t think so. Was he aware it would happen? Yes, I think so. There’s a difference, I believe, between knowledge and control.

    If God determines all actions (human and natural) and, in fact, predetermined all actions from the foundation of the cosmos, then God created evil? God predetermined Satan’s rebellion and fall (didn’t simply know it would happen, but determined that it SHOULD happen)? Satan is merely acting according to God’s ordained will? If this is so, then God could just have easily predetermined that Satan would be his closest ally. God could just as easily have determined Adam and Eve to be obedient. God could have predetermined that no sickness or poverty would exist. If God is the actual MOVER of all events, God is responsible for the good and the bad. Humanity – and the entire cosmos – are merely pawns to be used by a deterministic deity. This is certainly the ANE understanding of their deities (and the earliest Hebrew understanding of God). I don’t see this idea as accurately representing the nature of God.

    God created the universe and everything in it. He put in place free will/free cause and effect/free response within the design of everything he created. By allowing this freedom there was the very real possibility that human beings would choose not to have relationship with God. But it doesn’t make much sense that God would create human beings, give them instructions about how to engage him, but then not really allow them the ability to make an authentic choice or to even choose to obey the instructions. There simply cannot be free will or personal responsibility if the outcome is predetermined.

    Here’s the logical flow of your idea as I see it: You tell your son to put his shoes on even though you don’t want him to put his shoes on. When he disobeys your instruction you punish him for disobeying, even though you didn’t really want him to be wearing shoes and his shoeless state is EXACTLY what you wanted to begin with.

    (BTW, I have read your thoughts on Pharoah in GGSTJ but I need to refresh myself. I’ll check it out again when I get home.)

    1. RD,

      I think everything is foreordained, predestined, known from before the foundation of the world. I would see the drought in TX as an outworking of the curse on the land in Gen 3:17–19.

      Can you choose your way out of something that God foreknows?

      On whether God created evil, check out Isaiah 45:7 (bara raa – same verb used in Gen 1 used to describe God creating evil/calamity/the bad stuff). God is not evil, God does not do evil, and God is altogether holy, righteous, and good. Evil was not some failure on God’s part smuggled in by the dark zoroastrian power. God rules over everything in this world of his.

      If there’s no fall, can there be a cross? If there’s no fall, can God display mercy?

      Your talk of pawns and determinism presents a caricature of the real picture in the Bible where God is sovereign and people are responsible for their choices and actions. Pawns and determinism are simplistic misrepresentations that fit human minds. The real world described in the Bible won’t be put in that kind of box.

      The only libertarian free will in the universe is God’s (libertarian being a technical term for the power to choose the contrary – the rest of us have a choice mechanism we use to pick what we most want from the available options).

      I submit that your understanding does not sufficiently encompass the totality of the Bible’s testimony.



      1. Jim,

        Hope you’ve had a blessed Lord’s day, my friend!

        Again, I think there is a huge difference between knowledge and determinism. Asking if I can choose my way out of something God foreknows is, I think, the wrong way to ask the question. Can God give me a choice and still know what my choice will be? Yes. But I choose freely from the options. In that scenario, I have free will (even though God, being God, knows what my choice will be). BUT, if God MAKES the choice, but tells me I have a choice, then I really have no free will.

        If your teen son asks you to borrow the family car so he can go out on the town with his pals, and you tell him he has the choice take the family car out on the town, or to stay home and watch a movie with you, your wife and his brother and sister, and then you hide the car keys from him, he ends up staying home for movie night. But the choice REALLY wasn’t his. You controlled the outcome. If you hand him the keys and he decides to stay with the family, then he truly makes his own choice. If Moses had told Pharaoh to let the people go, and God had NOT hardened his heart, then Pharaoh would be responsible. That’s not how it went down. God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he rejected Moses’ demands. At each step, Pharaoh really had no choice. If scripture told us that after Moses spoke with Pharaoh, and angel of the Lord appeared also to Pharaoh and implored him to heed Moses’ demands, and Pharaoh still reacted as he did, then he would have responsibility. Telling someone they have free choice – that they are responsible for something – but then predetermining the outcomes, is misleading.

        I think we’ve gotten to the point in the discussion where we are going to go round and round. We clearly view the true nature of God differently in this respect.

        As for God creating evil, I understand the Isaiah scripture to be a more ancient understanding of God. ANE folk were used to attributing every single jot and tittle of life and the natural world to the interplay of the gods. When they came to understand that there weren’t multiple gods, but ONE true God, they tended to apply this same understanding (for a while). God makes everything, God causes everything etc, even the unpleasantness. This verse in Is 45 is a prime example. And so are the verses in 2 Samuel 24:1 to the end of the chapter. In verse one we are told that God burned with anger against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel and Judah. He then sends judgement on the nations because David took the census. In the ancient understanding, God would both initiate the census AND serve the punishment; God was responsible for everything, good and bad. But in 1 Chronicles 21:1 to the end of that chapter – written hundreds of years after 2 Sam – the entire theology changes. Satan rose up against Israel and incites David to take a census. Who incited David to take the census? Was it the Lord or was it Satan?

        All this to say, I don’t think God predetermined every single aspect and action of his creation. 21st century folk, by and large, suffer from a vitamin D deficiency since we spend more time indoors and aren’t exposed to the sun. Starting in the late 20th century was it God’s plan to start creating human beings with less vitamin D in their systems? Or is this natural fact a cause and effect result of free choices human beings began making about how they would live their lives (spending large amounts of time indoors in front of a computer monitor)?

        Enough for now. Hope your Monday gets the week off to a blessed start!


  7. Jim,

    Something occurred to me a moment ago as I was pondering our conversation here. If God truly is completely deterministic then we should never find any indication in scripture that he could be swayed from a decision in any way, even by our prayers, should we? Yet evidence abounds throughout scripture that God intended to act in one way only to have his intentions changed due to his interactions with humans.

    And, if God determines everything – DETERMINED everything from the very instant of creation – would we expect to find evidence in scripture of God regretting certain decisions he made? Yet we see in Genesis where God grieves over the fact that he’d created human beings. Why on earth would God grieve a decision he made if he had determined in advance that all humans, except Noah and his family, were going to be wicked and he was going to drown them all? Was he grieving the fact that he made them wicked instead of obedient? What was he grieving, exactly?

    There’s also the case involving King Saul. If God predetermined that Saul would be king (and wicked) this means that Saul could not have behaved in any other way and still been able to fulfill God’s predetermined plan. God was the force behind Saul’s response to every single situation he faced since God determined from the beginning of creation that Saul was to be king. If this is so, doesn’t it seem a bit strange to see in 1 Samuel that God grieved because he had made Saul the king of Israel? Why would God grieve a decision that he set in stone himself and preordained when he created the universe? How does he get glory for himself in a scenario like this?? Again, I have to ask what it was that God was actually grieving?

    Now, if we view Saul as truly having freedom to choose, and understand that he chose poorly, then it makes perfect sense to see why God would be grieving his decision to install Saul as Israel’s king. But in the scenarion where God determines Saul’s actions and there is no question about what kind of king that Saul is going to be, it makes no sense that God would be grieving anything. Things were working out exactly as he’d ordained them to work.

    Whew, it’s Friday afternoon and I’m going to bug out of this office and into the weekend.

    Blessings to you, my friend!


    1. What if God determines both the ends and the means to those ends, and part of the means are the prayers of his people? I refer you again to 1 Sam 15–17, where David prays for something in ch. 15 that the narrator says was predestined in ch. 17.

      God’s regret is not like our regret. The biblical authors are straining to get a God who is beyond our concepts and words into human language. The point is that this really grieved God, not that he would do it differently or that he made a mistake.

      See the statement in 1 Sam 15 that God’s grief/regret is not like a man’s.

      Yes, things were working out exactly as God ordained them to, but can God be complex enough to ordain that some will reject him and at the same time desire that all will be saved (1 Tim 2:4)? I think so. I think God can truly desire that all will be saved, even as he knows that he has made a world in which not all will be saved, a world in which he will display his almighty justice on those who will refuse to love the truth. This display of almighty justice will make mercy precious. So God wants both things, and he chooses the thing he wants more, the world in which both justice and mercy will be displayed.



      1. Good Monday morning, Jim

        You ask Can God be complex enough to ordain that some will reject him? Yes, he certainly could do that. But, if this is how God truly chooses to “operate” within his creation, it is disingenuous of God to then grieve for those who do reject him or disobey since God, ultimately, controls those outcomes. If God truly determines, then God can’t grieve the outcomes. Their of his own making. And to say that human beings are responsible is ludicrous.

        If a resistance group in Nazi occupied Poland has a train car that can hold only twenty people and there are 30 Jews who want to get onboard and escape, the head of resistance can honestly say that he wishes for all the Jews to be rescued, but knows that choices must be made as to who gets to go. Ten will not be selected. The twenty who do go will honestly and authentically give praise and glory to the resistance leader for rescuing them even as they also grieve the loss of the ten who were not chosen. And, It is absolutely appropriate for the resistance leader to grieve the loss of the ten who weren’t chosen. This is legitimate, authentic grief.

        However, if the head of resistance has the MEANS AND ABILITY to supply a larger train car, but simply chooses not to, then his grief over those ten left behind is inauthentic. I’d go so far as to say that it was evidence of a deeper pathology, since his decision actually determined the outcome for those ten Jews left behind.

        You say that you think God can authentically desire that all will be saved even though he’s created a world where he knows that not all will be. That statement is vastly different from saying that God desires all to be saved, but DETERMINES who will be and who won’t. I agree with your statement as posted above. God HAS created a world in which he’s given human beings choice and true responsibility. He DOES know that this means some will choose poorly (just as parents know that their kids are going to often make poor choices even though they are allowed greater and greater personal responsibility). If there are those who, as you say, refuse to love the truth, then THEY are responsible for the outcomes and consequences. However, if God predetermines that your oldest child, let’s say, will love the truth but, despite all your personal prayers, guidance, influence, etc, your youngest child will not love the truth, then your youngest never had a real chance or a real choice. God made the choice. God chose your oldest and not your youngest. The rest is just acting in a cosmic play.

        God can’t give true authentic free will AND determine outcomes. You can’t have one without the other. God can’t make absolute light present at the same time absolute darkness is present. You have one or you have the other. There’s either light in a space or absence of light in a space. There is either free will or absence of free will.

        Prayers for a great week, my friend!


  8. Thank you both for the dialogue. The dialogue was just as helpful as the article. Glad I chose to read what God predestined to be discussed here, (attempt at comedy)

    Enjoy Grace!

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