Acts 13:48 is considered by many to be one of the strongest verses in defense of Calvinism’s view of individual election. We read, “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.
At first glance it does appear to present quite the challenge to the widely held and thoroughly biblical corporate view of divine election. However a few considerations pulled from both context and grammar will demonstrate how this passage poses no serious threat to the corporate view of election, and in fact dovetails nicely with classical Arminian teaching that no sinner comes to faith independent of the gracious work of God. For Arminian theology is founded on the unalterable conviction that the Spirit of God continuously seeks to break down walls of resistance, open hearts and draw sinners unto divine love.
To commence lets first take note of the fact that the Greek word translated “appointed” comes from the Greek root of the verb tasso. Some Arminian scholars point out that tasso can be interpreted both in the passive voice or the middle voice. If interpreted in the passive voice the subject would be seen as entering a state in response to being acted upon. Yet this alone does not warrant the Calvinist insistance that God must be the actor. New Testament scholar Brian Abasceno rightly notes “the passive alone does not indicate who the agent of the action is, and does allow for the subject himself/herself to be the agent.” If interpreted in the middle voice the subject would most defintely be entering a state or condition in response to one’s own disposition, inclination or preparedness.
Concerning Acts 13:48 both interpretations of tasso are grammatically possible. To be fair Luke uses tasso in a few other instances in his epistle and in each case the middle voice is not the best interpretation (e.g. Acts 15:2, 22:10, 28:23). However this fact alone does not rule out the possibility of the middle voice in Acts 13:48. Moreover it must be understood that Luke’s usage of tasso elsewhere in his epistle has absolutely no connotation whatsoever of being a timeless decree or an act of eternal foreordination on the part of God before the creation of the world (as John Wesley rightly pointed out years ago). We will explore this key point more below since it is the unfounded presupposition Calvinists force upon the text.
In addition not a single usage of tasso in Acts identifies God as being the agent performing the action. In fact of all the instances where tasso is seen throughout the entire N.T. only one explicitly identifies God as being the actor of tasso (e.g. Rom. 13:1), and even in that case the verse is completely unrelated to salvation and simply deals with God setting or establishing authorities in place.
The verb tasso can have various nuances depending on the context surrounding its use. A perusal through numerous Greek lexicons will generally show it means, “to arrange or set in an orderly manner,” “to assign, to ordain, to appoint or dispose to a certain place or position.” Tasso is used 8 times in the New Testament and is translated with the basic meaning of “to appoint,” “to designate a place,” “to appoint or designate that something be done,” “to appoint a day for something to be done,” or “to appoint or set in order the powers that rule the world.” By far the majority of tasso passages are in the passive voice, but not all. In 1 Corinthians 16:15 we find the household of Stephanus “appointing their services” or “setting themselves” in service to saints in the church and the verb tasso is translated in the middle voice as meaning “devoted themselves.” In that sense upon seeing the needs of the saints the household of Stephanus positioned or arranged themselves accordingly to serve the interests of the saints rather than themselves.
Calvinists opt to argue that Luke’s usage of tasso should be interpreted in the passive voice thereby retaining the idea of an external cause acting on the subject to bring about a result—in this case belief. Therefore the passage should be read as “all those who were appointed to eternal life believed.” To be sure most translations bear out the passive voice and render tasso as “appointed” or “ordained.” However, not satisfied with this, Calvinists then go outside the text to gather up assumptions not explicit in the passage and then return to the text “arms laden” with presuppositions that lead them to argue that the passive voice of tasso must mean that God eternally elected or predestined before the creation of the world certain individuals to eternal life and the result of that predestination or foreordination is that those individuals believed.
We will address this shortly but suffice it to say at this juncture that some Arminians object to this interpretation and suggest that another possible interpretation can be drawn out by translating tasso in the middle voice. In this sense the passage would imply “all those who set their lives in accordance to the gospel of eternal life believed” or “all those who were devoted to eternal life believed.”
The difference in meaning is quite obvious. If interpreted in the middle voice the implication is that the hearers of Paul’s message set in order their own hearts in response to the message preached. Yet even in this sense no faithful Arminian worth his salt would ever suggest the heart of sinner can be set in order or be internally disposed and devoted to eternal life independent of the gracious Spirit of God convicting and drawing that heart out of darkness and to the light of life.
While the argument of some Arminians scholars for the middle voice is worthy of great consideration, it is difficult—if not impossible— to make a case that can completely silence the considerations of those who view the passive voice to be the most reasonable and plausible interpretation. Therefore it should be asked, is there a third alternative solution that retains the traditional translation of tasso in the passive voice and yet avoids the interpretive conclusion that Calvinists seek to argue for—that being that the passage teaches an eternal, timeless decree of election that is the direct cause for the belief of individuals?
I believe there is such an alternative—in fact there are two!
The rationale for interpreting tasso in the passive voice is to retain the idea that Paul’s hearers are entering a state in response to some external initiative or cause. Calvinists seek to qualify that external cause to be a divine appointment on the part of God. The text does not explicitly state this and so it is pure speculation on the Calvinist to insist upon it. However we will soon see that even a divine appointment to eternal life can be affirmed without consenting to the further conjecture that such a divine setting or appointment is rooted in a timeless, hidden decree of God before the foundation of the world.
But first let’s deal with how tasso can be interpreted in the passive voice without having to speculate on whether or not God is the external cause of tasso. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that the external cause of tasso upon the hearers is the message of the gospel itself! Jesus often prefaced his deeper messages with the remark, “He who has ears let him hear” (Mt. 11:15). We are told in Romans 10:17 that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” so it should be no surprise to discover that the gospel message preached can be said to set lives in order (tasso) which were previously in disorder and in disarray. Understood in this light, the passage can be interpreted as follows: “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many of those who heard and were set in order by the things they heard concerning eternal life believed.”
Yet perhaps the Calvinist is not content with only interpreting tasso in the passive voice, but also sees an inference to a divine appointing or divine setting to eternal life concerning Paul’s hearers. This leads us to our second, possible interpretation.
Much of the heat of argument generated over Acts 13:48 dissipates when we realize that tasso can: (1) be interpreted in the passive voice as being a divine setting or appointment to eternal life, (2) while at the same time compliment the Arminian views on God’s grace in salvation and retaining corporate election!
For starters it is imperative to point out that Calvinists substantially err in seeking to argue that tasso’s passive voice translation of “appointed, ordained or destined” must refer to God’s eternal decree of individual election before time began. By itself tasso has nothing whatsoever to do with a timeless foreordination or pre-temporal determinism. Not a single scriptural usage of tasso can be explicitly called in support of viewing tasso in this way—not one! The reason is simple. If the N.T. authors and particularly Luke in Acts 13:48 had meant to denote an eternal decree of foreordination, election or of a choice before time they could have easily said so with a number of words at their disposal to mean exactly that. In fact Luke previously enlisted two words, orizo and proorizo, in Acts to clearly speak of something that is predestined or foreordained in its appointment—namely the redemptive work of the Son (Acts 2:22-23, 4:27-28).
If orizo and proorizo are Luke’s common and preferred words to denote eternal predestination or foreordination, why would he then turn around and use tasso in Acts 13:48—a word which is never used in scripture to denote a timeless decree of foreordination? Apparently Luke does not want us to infer a divine, eternal decree of election—yet this is exactly what Calvinists unfortunately do!
Therefore, to be sure, even by retaining the passive voice of tasso as referring to those appointed to eternal life by God, there is no reason we should then infer that such an appointment is a pre-temporal, predestinating or foreordained decree of election on the part of God. Rather the sense of tasso is always suggestive of a temporal arrangement, or a time-bound, worldly ordering or appointment of events and actions which were, at that particular time, under consideration.
Most translations opt for translating tasso simply as “appointed” but some opt for “ordain.” Yet it bears repeating even in this sense translating tasso as “ordained” need not mean “fore-ordained in eternity past” any more than “appointed” means “pre-appointed before the world began.” Once again if Luke had wanted to signify a pre-deterministic foreordination as his intended meaning he easily could have done so by choosing a verb form that meant exactly that.
What we can infer from the passage is that their setting or appointment to eternal life, which did in fact lead to their subsequent belief, was itself a work of divine grace leading and establishing their hearts in faith. Truth be told such an understanding of the role of grace in salvation is a core feature of the Arminian perspective! This may come as a surprise to some given that there are so many misinformed assessments and misrepresentations of Arminianism that run amuck in Calvinist circles. This ignorance is a direct result of both popular and scholarly level Calvinists refusing to engage genuine, Arminian scholars on their own turf and in their words. Arminians have no bones to pick with Calvinists over the need for divine grace to initiate saving faith and ultimately open a sinner’s heart to the gospel. Where we disagree is the Calvinist insistence that divine grace cannot be resisted or rejected. Arminians believe such a grace would be coercive in nature and thus no grace at all.
Greg Boyd, though he ascribes to an open view of the future, is thoroughly Arminian in his soteriology and offers a helpful summary on the role of grace in Acts 13:48 and rightly notes the Calvinist error in imposing on the text an outside, preconceived assumption of election:
Note that the text simply says that “as many as were destined [Boyd undoubtedly opts to say “destined” to give the Calvinist the full weight of the argument before demonstrating how the Arminian view remains sound] for eternal life became believers.” Other than suggesting it was prior to their believing, the verse does not tell us when these people were destined. Nor does it suggest that they were destined simply because God unconditionally chose them. Calvinists assume that this destiny was given to the elect before the world began by sheer divine fiat, but the text simply does not say this. To be sure, there are several other texts which do say that we were predestined before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4–5; 2 Tim. 1:9) but the “we” of these verses is a corporate “we.” These verses do not support individual election to salvation.
The text only requires us to believe that the Spirit of God had been at work preparing the hearts of all who did not resist him to accept the Gospel when they heard it. God knows our heart before we express it through our words or through our decisions (Ps. 139:2–4). On this basis the Lord could assure Paul before his missionary endeavor at Corinth that “there are many in this city who are my people” (viz. whose hearts have been opened and who will therefore believe your message) (Acts 18:10).
So too, Lydia listened intently to Paul’s Gospel because the Lord had already “opened her heart” (Acts 16:14). Those Gentiles who did not resist the Spirit’s work in their life were “ripe” for the message of Paul and Barnabas.”
It should be no wonder to discover that our heavenly Father “looks to and fro throughout the whole earth to give strong support to those whose hearts are blameless toward Him” (2 Chron. 16:9) so that he might appoint them to eternal life by opening their heart, as with Lydia, to receive the Good News. Apparently some of the “God fearing Gentiles” (Acts 17:17) in Corinth had not resisted the Spirit’s prior visitations upon their lives and thus were already appointed to eternal life by the time Paul and Barnabas preached to them the Good News which they no doubt received with joyful hearts.
Again Boyd astutely writes,
Scripture teaches us that prior to a person’s conscious decision to put their faith in Jesus Christ, the Father is “drawing” them and the Holy Spirit is working on them to break down walls of resistance and make the soil of their soul fertile (John 6:44, 65; 1 Cor. 12:3). This is why the Lord could tell Paul, “there are many in this city (Corinth) who are my people” (Acts 18:10), though Paul had not yet preached there and there were as yet no believers… Now, scripture makes it clear that this sovereign work of God can be resisted, for we are free agents even when the God of the universe is knocking on our hearts (Isa. 63:10; Acts 7:51; Heb. 3:8, 15; 4:7, cf. Eph. 4:30). When we persist in our rebellion, our eyes remain blind and our hearts remain dark (2 Cor. 4:4–6). We will not accept the truth of the Gospel. But when our resistance is broken down, our destiny to become believers is settled…
In my opinion, this is also how we ought to interpret Jesus’ words when he tells certain Jews, “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice…and they follow me” (John 10:26–27). Jesus isn’t implying that God unilaterally decides who will and will not be sheep, as Calvinists teach. And he certainly isn’t suggesting that this matter was decided before any of these people were born. Jesus’ words only imply that at the time of his speaking some people were sheep and therefore believed while others were not and therefore did not believe. We create impossible problems for ourselves—such as how God can love all and want all to be saved while predestining many to hell—when we go beyond what Scripture teaches…
In sum, we see that this verse teaches that God’s move toward us always precedes our move toward him, as in Corinth, and as with Lydia. God had ahead of time prepared the hearts of a number of Gentiles in Antioch to receive the Gospel when Paul and Barnabas preached it. But this verse does not suggest that God eternally predestines… who will and will not believe in him.”
There is an additional contextual feature to be found in the text that compliments Boyd’s highlighting of the fact that before Paul and Barnabas even preached the gospel, the Lord had individuals in view whose hearts were open and ready to receive the gospel in faith. We find this contextual clue a few verses earlier in vs. 43. We read, “When the congregation was dismissed, many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.”
These “devout converts to Judaism” were of course Gentiles and the fact that they are spoken of as being “devout” signifies that a genuine conversion to the Abrahamic faith had taken place prior to Paul and Barnabas’s arrival! For this reason Paul encourages them to “continue in the grace of God” (vs. 43).
In other words these devout, Gentile converts to the faith of Abraham were already in a sense “on their way” or appointed and/or ordained to the eternal truth of God by virtue of their prior orientation to the grace of God under an O.T. covenantal relationship with God. They started with grace in the old covenant and Paul wants to see them continue in grace in the new covenant! The passage says that immediately the next day the whole city turned out to hear the preaching of Paul and Barnabas. The Gentile “devout converts” of vs. 43 are undoubtedly the same Gentiles in vs. 48 who are said to be those who were appointed to eternal life and thus believed.
That changes everything!
It is no stretch to say that the Spirit of the Lord’s grace had been preparing the soil of their heart through their devout hunger to know God in an O.T. covenantal paradigm. In this sense their being “appointed to eternal life” should not be viewed as some theological aside related to a timeless, unconditional, selective decree of election. Rather, it is only through engaging the passage in the context of the overall narrative that Luke is telling that we come to understand something of great import. That is, their appointment to eternal life is the natural extension of a spiritual awakening that grace had already performed for them through their covenantal status as a spiritual descendent of Abraham in view of their commitment to the true faith of Abraham!
Understanding Acts 13:48 in this way allows us to retain the passive translation of tasso without going further than what the text says by assuming some sort of timeless foreordination of election. It also avoids the misgivings some have in opting for the middle voice and assuming that the hearers of Paul’s message set themselves or were devoted and disposed to eternal life within themselves. Most importantly it retains the idea that their appointment to eternal life was due to an external cause—namely the grace of God that established them formerly in the Old Covenant and was now carrying them through to its fulfillment in Christ in the New Covenant.
It is no overreaching assertion to state that at the time of Christ’s advent all those who were in true, faith-binding covenant with the God of Abraham were set, appointed, destined for eternal life. The Gentiles “who rejoiced” (vs. 48) that the door of salvation was open to them were already in a Judaic covenant of faith with the God of Abraham, and that served as the basis for their subsequent appointment leading to a full faith in the God of Abraham. They were converts to the God of Abraham before they even heard Paul preach, and yet Paul sought to urge them to lay hold of grace and go one step further into full conversion. This is beyond doubt what Paul hoped for when he “urged them to continue in the grace of God” the very day prior to their final conversion to Christ.
Lastly, there is no sound reason to assume that Paul thinks that grace is compulsory, irresistible and “always gets its man.” Otherwise he would not have urged them to do their part in partnering with God by “continuing in the grace of God (vs. 43).” Likewise we should not read into the text some preconceived notion that God did not genuinely desire others to come to life. Rather than describing a God who unconditionally predestines individuals to be excluded from eternal life, Luke says quite the opposite. He places the responsibility square at the feet of those who rejected the word of God for themselves. Couched between Acts 13:43 and 47 we find these telling passages:
“On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: “We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.”
Far from teaching an individual, eternal decree of election, that arbitrarily selects some for eternal life while banishing others, Acts 13:43-48 is revealing the beauty and faithfulness of God’s covenant transfer. Those who had rightly responded in faith and trust to God’s grace in the old covenant, and were thereby appointed to eternal life on that basis, would not be forgotten or left behind. Just as they heard and recognized the voice of their Good Shepherd in the old covenant they would recognize that same voice coming through the message of the new coveant and thus be graciously shephered into God’s new covenant through their continued belief. Moreover Acts 13:43-48 teaches that grace always reaches out through the word of God to order our lives and establish us on a path leading to eternal life. But when the word of God is rejected and his grace spurned such individuals consequently judge themselves as “unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46).