Calvinists believe that before God created the world, he had already decreed which of us would believe the gospel and be saved. One passage often cited to support this doctrine is Acts 13:48: "And as many as were appointed to eternal life believed" (ESV). In this post, I offer an alternative interpretation of this verse which accords with Wesleyan/Arminian theology.
The key question in the interpretation of Acts 13:48 is this: why were these people appointed to eternal life? I agree with the Calvinists that these people were not appointed to eternal life on the basis of their faith in Jesus. Luke’s language suggests that these people believed in Jesus because they were appointed; they were not appointed because they believed in Jesus. However, Luke does not go so far as to say that these people were ordained unconditionally before the foundation of the world. On the contrary, when this verse is read in the wider context of Luke’s narrative, quite a different picture emerges.
Luke has just told us about another Gentile who was appointed to eternal life: Cornelius. Recall the words of the angel to Cornelius: "Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved" (11:13-14 ESV). Cornelius is not yet saved. Cornelius has apparently not yet even heard about Jesus, much less believed in him. Nevertheless, the angel comes to Cornelius and tells him that he will be saved. Clearly there is a sense in which Cornelius had been appointed to salvation. But why was Cornelius thus appointed? Luke is abundantly clear:
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort, a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms generously to the people, and prayed continually to God. About the ninth hour of the day he saw clearly in a vision an angel of God come in and say to him, "Cornelius." And he stared at him in terror and said, "What is it, Lord?" And he said to him, "Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God." (10:1-4 ESV)
And Cornelius said, "Four days ago, about this hour, I was praying in my house at the ninth hour, and behold, a man stood before me in bright clothing and said, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter.'" ... So Peter opened his mouth and said: "Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." (10:30-35 ESV)
In short, Luke does not present us with a man who was ordained to eternal life unconditionally before the foundation of the world. Instead, Luke presents us with a man who was chosen to receive salvation through Jesus because of his prior response to God.
Now it is important to understand here just how significant the Cornelius incident is to the narrative in Acts. Through extensive repetition, Luke expands this story to almost two full chapters. Luke evidently thinks this story is important, and no wonder! The theological ramifications of the Cornelius incident set the stage for Paul’s mission to the Gentile world – a mission which occupies almost all of the subsequent narrative. Cornelius is thus not simply a random person who believes in Jesus; he stands in the narrative of Acts as a paradigmatic example of a Gentile who receives salvation.
Consider also the immediate context of Acts 13:48:
The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, "It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, "'I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'" And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. (13:44-48 ESV)
Note the striking contrast between those who are "appointed to eternal life" and those who are “unworthy of eternal life.” (Not only do these two references to "eternal life" occur in close proximity to one another; they also constitute the only two occurences of the phrase in the entire book of Acts.) Now of course, there is an important sense in which every single person is “unworthy of eternal life.” We are all "unworthy of eternal life" in the sense that we have done nothing to merit or earn our salvation. This sense, however, is certainly not the one intended by Paul in Acts 13:46. Paul is not saying, "You are unworthy of eternal life – and so are we!" Just as those who are "unworthy of eternal life" are clearly not "appointed to eternal life," those who are "appointed to eternal life" are clearly not "unworthy of eternal life." Thus Luke’s language naturally suggests that those who were appointed to eternal life were also in some sense worthy of eternal life – just like Cornelius.
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