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I once had a girlfriend who was a classic liberal. Don’t misunderstand. She wasn’t a classical liberal, that is, one with a profound desire for liberty, one who was skeptical about the role of the state. No, strangely enough, this particular young lady was the prototype of a modern liberal. She never met a social cause she didn’t like. She was so far off center that she was the left wing-tip. She was a graduate of the mecca of liberals, the University of California at Berkeley. Her error motivated me not to end the relationship, but to try to put an end to her liberalism. I became, however briefly, an evangelist for limited government, for the free market. I started out by explaining that even Marx himself recognized that a free economy created a great deal of stuff. Productivity wasn’t the problem, according to Marx, in the capitalist economy. Instead, the problem was the distribution of the wealth that was created. So far, because I was in agreement with Marx, I was in agreement with her. Then I used one of my favorite analogies, “So you see,” I said, “capitalism provides, I confess, different sized portions of the donut. Socialism, I’m sorry to say, provides equal portions of the hole.”

The trouble was, she didn’t see the trouble. Trying to help her see the point I asked her this: “Would you rather live in a world where everyone makes $5000 a year, or would you rather live in a world where the poorest people earn $100,000 a year, but the wealthiest earn $10,000,000 a year? She didn’t hesitate for a moment in making her choice. Better everyone at the same spot well under the poverty line, than for some to have more than others.

Egalitarianism runs deep in our culture. We have taken the wise notion of our fathers, that all men are created equal and twisted it beyond recognition. They, in so claiming, were arguing that the law was to be blind to issues of background and wealth, that justice was indeed for all. The camel nudged its nose into the tent when we began to clamor instead for “equal opportunity.” Now society would be structured such that everyone would have to start the race at the same place. When this didn’t achieve the results desired we slipped to handicapping the race such that everyone will finish the same. Now we want an equal ending.

Which may explain why it is that Americans Christians seem to have such a difficult time with the doctrine of election, especially as it is expressed in the doctrine of limited atonement. Our sense of fairness is not built around a concept of equity or fairness, but is built around a concept of equality, which is often rather unfair. We Americans tend to treat the grace of God the way our school teachers used to treat our treats — we were only allowed to eat them if we had enough for everyone. If God should show kindness toward one human, we reason, He is duty bound to do the same for everyone. Praise God that our king transcends these cultural quirks. Praise God He is not subject to the folly of His subjects.

John Owen, in what is perhaps his greatest work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, goes to great pains to help us see the fulfillment of God’s divine prerogative, that He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. Because we are all sinners, God owes us all only His just condemnation. But God, who is rich in mercy, has condescended to shower His mercy upon those whom He has chosen, for His good pleasure. To some He shows this mercy; to others He manifests justice.

It is not, however, simply the American spirit of egalitarianism that gets in our way. We are a strange bunch, who want at the same time to live in that place where we all receive blue ribbons, but we also want to earn what we have. We are at the same time a bootstrap people. You don’t conquer a continent, after all, by sitting around waiting for your fair share of the donut hole. This pushes us to sundry forms of Pelagian theology wherein we claw our own way to heaven. These paradoxes are reconciled then when we see that we want God to treat us all the same not because that is our only chance, but so that when we do win the race, we can brag that we did it on our own. It is not ultimately a desire to make God look good in the eyes of socialists that makes us push Him to treat us all the same. Instead it is a desire to make ourselves look good. We want the credit.

While The Death of Death in the Death of Christ dealt a death blow the notion that God treats us all exactly the same, it is the death of Christ that puts to death any notion that we can do it on our own. The death of Christ does not make it possible for all of us to be saved, but certain for none of us. His death doesn’t move us closer to the finish line, and those who are good will finish. No, He died because we are dead in ourselves. Put a dead man just one inch from the finish line, and he will never finish. Instead, by His death we were made alive. As one wise wag put it, man doesn’t bring the final push to salvation. He doesn’t bring self-generated faith to the party. He doesn’t add his paltry works to the equation. No, what man contributes to his salvation is the need for salvation. We bring the sin that needs to be covered. Let, therefore, no man boast.

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From the October 2004 Issue
Oct 2004 Issue