Acts 13:48 is one of the most referenced proof texts used by Calvinists to support their belief in unconditional election. And, admittedly, this verse when read with the claims of the Calvinistic worldview in focus does seem to support those claims. However, it should be noted, that this is true of any proof text being used to support any given perspective. That is why we call it “proof texting.” Most respectable theologians and scholars know these types of texts can be cited to support both sides of the argument, therefore great care must be taken to fully vet the context and seek to discover the true intention of the biblical author for every proof text that is offered.
Before unpacking Acts 13, let’s be reminded of a couple rules for proper hermeneutics (method of interpretation).
- Didactic texts set doctrine and narratives help inform doctrine. Narratives are meant to tell a story, not teach foundational theological beliefs. Acts 13 is a narrative and though it can help us better understand our doctrinal beliefs it should not be foundational to develop our theology.
- Text without context is a pretext for proof-text. We have to look at what is happening at the time the author is writing in order to better understand the possible intent of the author. With this in mind let’s look at the historical context of Acts 13.
Imagine if the New Testament was written in North America during the civil rights movement. The “historical context” would involve the tensions between blacks and whites and therefore would affect the author’s choice of words within that social dynamic. Likewise, in the first century there is a dynamic between Jews and Gentiles that needs to be understood in order to rightly represent the author’s true intentions.
Consider the fact that the “elect people” (Israelites) were generally not believing the gospel, while the “non-elect people” (Gentiles) were believing the gospel in mass numbers. The big debate of that day was whether God had actually included (grafted in) barbarian sinners from nations other than Israel. The biblical authors, and most especially Paul, go to great lengths to argue the case that the Gentiles were also appointed by God for eternal life.
The question of the first century was not, “Has God elected to irresistibly save some and leave the rest in a hopeless condition?” But rather, the question being debated was in fact, “Has God really appointed those barbarian non-elect half-breeds and uncircumcised dogs for eternal life?”
If we come to the text with the wrong question we will most certainly find the wrong answer. Indeed, we may find an answer the text was never even attempting to address. So, what is being addressed in the historical context of the thirteenth chapter in Acts?
Let’s consider some specific phrases that more clearly reveal what is actually happening at this time. Notice in this speech, Paul is speaking to both Israelites and Gentiles. He begins by explaining the national election of Israel and the purposes God fulfilled through the Jewish peoples.
Standing up, Paul motioned with his hand and said: “Fellow Israelites and you Gentiles who worship God, listen to me! The God of the people of Israel chose our ancestors (national election of Israel); he made the people prosper during their stay in Egypt; with mighty power he led them out of that country; for about forty years he endured their conduct in the wilderness; and he overthrew seven nations in Canaan, giving their land to his people as their inheritance. All this took about 450 years.
From verse 14 we know the apostles are speaking in a Jewish synagogue on the Sabbath and verse 16 specifies the audience includes Gentiles who are already believers in the God of Israel and desire to worship Him. Many God-fearing Gentiles genuinely believed in God and had not yet grown calloused in the religiosity of the Pharisaical teachings. No one could rightly describe these God-fearing Gentiles as totally disabled, hardened, God haters in need of some sort of supernatural grace to effectuate faith. They already had faith in God, they simply did not know about the Messiah yet.
Granted, these “Gentiles who worship God” had not yet come to specifically believe in Jesus Christ so as to be indwelled by His Spirit, but that is because they had not yet heard this specific good news. How could they believe in One whom they have not heard, as Paul inquires in Romans 10:14?
These worshipping Gentiles are prepared or ready to receive the mystery of the gospel first being brought to light by inspiration through the holy apostles (Eph. 3:1-10). One might even say they are “disposed or prepared” (tasso) to hear the truth being brought to them on this day.
Further, could it be that God had already “set His favor upon” these Gentiles and “appointed them to eternal life” (Acts 13:48) because they have a humble and contrite heart that has believed in what revelation they have been given (Is. 66:2)? As the Psalmist clearly explains,
“Who are those who fear the Lord? He will show them the path they should choose.” -Psalms 25:12
Maybe God is directing those who have been listening and learning from the Father to also follow His Son (Jn 6:45)? Doesn’t it make sense that God would want genuine worshippers to know of and follow Christ? With this context in mind go on to read what the text says,
“After this, God gave them judges until the time of Samuel the prophet. Then the people asked for a king, and he gave them Saul son of Kish, of the tribe of Benjamin, who ruled forty years. After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’
From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised. Before the coming of Jesus, John preached repentance and baptism to all the people of Israel. As John was completing his work, he said: ‘Who do you suppose I am? I am not the one you are looking for. But there is one coming after me whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.’
Fellow children of Abraham and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to US that this message of salvation has been sent.” (Acts 13:16-26 emphasis added)
Paul summarizes God’s purpose of electing Israel when he states, “God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus…it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent.” God has chosen to bring His Messiah and His Message through Israel. There is nothing said about God choosing to irresistibly save individuals of Israel, but only that He would fulfill His promise to Abraham by blessing all people through his seed. God is making sure that all those who are already genuinely worshipping Him know of His Son too. These are the ones who would be prepared or appointed to receive this good news.
The text continues in verse 38 to show this historical context:
“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses. (Acts 13:38-39)
Notice the apostle is bringing attention to the fact that anyone and everyone, regardless of their nationality, can be justified before God through faith. He also teaches that righteousness is unattainable through the law of Moses, but does that prove it is equally unattainable through faith?
Calvinists wrongly presume that believing in the One who fulfilled the law for us is as equally unattainable as fulfilling the demands of the law ourselves.
In other words, Calvinists have concluded that if you cannot attain righteousness under the law of Moses, then you must also be unable to put your trust in Christ, the one who fulfilled that law. This is a non-sequitur and is nowhere supported in the pages of scripture. Paul continues in verse 40 saying,
“Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you,” “‘Look, you scoffers, wonder and perish, for I am going to do something in your days that you would never believe, even if someone told you.’”
Israel’s unbelief is predicted, as their hearts had grown calloused after continual rebellion. If one continues to rebel by suppressing the truth, then eventually their thinking will grow defiled and God may give them over to their fleshly desires (Rom. 1:21-28). They may even be sealed over into that condition or blinded from truth for a time by God for a good redemptive purpose (Jn 12:39-41; Rom 11). Theologians sometimes refer this as the “judicial hardening of Israel,” which is NOT a representing a condition of the heart from birth, as the Calvinistic system presumes. In Acts 28:23-28, Paul lays out this clear distinction
The apostle explicitly spells out the ability of those who have NOT yet grown calloused. “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn…they will listen.”
Anyone who has been involved with mission work can testify to the fact that taking the gospel to areas where it has not been preached before is typically meet with much more reception than the gospel-saturated regions. Why is this? People who reject God’s revelation grow calloused to it over time. They are not born in this condition, mind you, but may grow into this hardened and blinded state through continual rebellion.
This is most likely why Jesus uses a child as an example of what we must become like if we are to enter His kingdom (Matt. 18:3). If all are all are born without the ability to respond positively to the gospel, then why would Jesus use a random child as any example of what we must be like? Isn’t the child just as depraved and hardened from birth as the 80-year-old Israelite according to the Calvinistic system? The difference is that the child is humble and moldable because he has not yet “grown calloused.” The child is sinful, but not yet hardened. The text continues in Acts 13:42-48:
“As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. 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.
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. They began to contradict what Paul was saying and heaped abuse on him.
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.”
Sound familiar? This is exactly what he speaks of in Acts 28:27-28 in reflection of Israel’s becoming calloused to the revelation of God. The elect people were hardened because they were saturated with revelation, so the revelation is sent to the non-elect ones, the barbarian sinners. God “cuts off” Israel and “grafts in” all nations of the world (ref to Rom. 11). This is what “the election” is referencing throughout scripture: God’s election to bring His specific revelation (through elect messengers), first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles (all other nations).
Notice in verse 46 that Luke regards the Jews rejection of the gospel as THEIR OWN consideration of being unworthy for eternal life (not God’s rejection of them), which is the antithesis to verse 48 where the Gentiles belief in the gospel is proof of THEIR being prepared or “appointed” to eternal life (i.e. grafted in). So, in the same way Israel considered themselves unworthy for eternal life by their rebellion to God’s revelation thus leading to their being cut off, now the Gentiles, who were NOT hardened in like manner, but who were in large part open to hearing and believing the gospel truth, are being grafted in by faith. This is precisely what Paul explains in his summary of Romans chapter 9:
Now, knowing this context, where Israel is hardened and thus unable to see the truth, and the gospel is being taken to all the nations of the world (referred to generally as “Gentiles”), we read:
“For this is what the Lord has commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’ When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” (Acts 13:47-48)
So, why were these God-fearing Gentiles appointed for eternal life? Below are two possible answers to this question. Use your own discernment, under guidance of the Holy Spirit, while considering what we just learned about the context of the first century, and you decide which of these answers best fits the narrative:
Why were the God-fearing Gentiles appointed for eternal life?
(1) For mysterious reasons never explained to us God chose certain individual Gentiles and effectually worked within them the desire to believe the gospel, while leaving the unbelieving Jews in a hopelessly innate corrupt condition that they had no ability to correct or change from the time they were born.
(2) The Gentiles were “prepared for” or “appointed to” eternal life because they humbly recognized their sin and believed in God, unlike the Jews who had willingly rebelled and grown calloused to the truth of God.
There are a number of approaches to understanding the intention of this passage within this historical context. Dr. Brian Abasciano, a notable Greek and New Testament scholar, writes,
“The best understanding of ‘tasso’ [appointed] in Acts 13:48 is that it refers to Gentiles who were ‘in position for eternal life’ — ‘ready for eternal life’ — or even ‘intent on obtaining eternal life’ (particularly in contrast to the Jews of the same episode who opposed Paul and rejected the gospel, and so who judged themselves unworthy of eternal life [Acts 13:46]), and that the most accurate translation of the phrase in question would be something like: ‘as many as were disposed to eternal life believed’ or ‘as many as were aligned for eternal life believed’ or ‘as many as were positioned for eternal life believed.‘” (More of Dr. Abasciano’s grammatical perspective can be viewed HERE.)
Some Gentiles, like Lydia or Cornelius recorded in scripture, were referred to as “worshippers of God” or “God fearing” gentiles even before they heard the gospel of Christ and believed. It is likely that Luke intends to contrast these God-fearing Gentiles (prepared to come to faith in large numbers) to the self-righteous Jews who have grown self hardened in their stubborn religiosity, thus fitting themselves for destruction. (Acts 28:27; Romans 9:22)
Most scholars agree that God likely showed mercy to those who had even a mustard seed sized faith based on their limit revelation prior to the coming of Christ and knowledge of His redemptive work (i.e. Rahab). In other words, people who died prior to Christ’s coming, but who, like Cornelius, genuinely feared the Lord, would have been “credited as righteous” (i.e. appointed to eternal life) even though they never had opportunity to hear and believe the specific gospel of Christ. After all, God did promise Abraham to “bless those who bless you” (Gen. 12:3). Those not even of the seed of Abraham may receive the blessing of His mercy by grace through faith in the promise.
Dr. F.L. Forlines reflects on the teaching of notable scholar, F.F. Bruce, regarding the potential meaning of Acts 13,
“F. F. Bruce says that the ‘simple monotheism of Jewish synagogue worship’ and Jewish ethics attracted many Gentiles who were not ready to become full proselyte Jews. Some of these Gentiles went to synagogue and became very familiar with Jewish prayers and readings from the Septuagint. Others even observed Sabbath and abstained from certain foods. Thus Bruce argues, ‘That the first Gentile to hear and accept the gospel should be a God-fearer is the more significant because, as we shall see later in Acts, it was such God-fearers who formed the nucleus of the Christian community in one city after another in the course of Paul’s missionary activity.’ These Gentiles who were influenced by Jewish thought, but chose not to become proselytes, are referred to as devout men or God-fearers. If some of the Jews were saved by faith before the coming of Jesus, it follows that some of the Gentile proselytes and God-fearers were also saved by faith. I think that any serious study of Acts must keep this observation in mind. I am not suggesting that all of these God-fearers were saved prior to hearing that Jesus the Messiah had come. There would have been some who would not have taken matters that seriously. However, I do believe that some were saved by believing the redemptive revelation of God given in the Old Testament before they heard the gospel message. That possibility no longer exists. But it did exist during this transition period. The Gentiles who had been influenced by the Jews as they had migrated to different parts of the Roman Empire would not have found the concept of individual salvation as distinguished from corporate salvation as objectionable as the Jews did. I think this could account for much of the early success in reaching Gentiles with the gospel. Now, let us see how this viewpoint helps us understand Acts 13:48. Verse 43 mentions “proselytes.” They were among those who were persuaded by Paul and Barnabas “to continue in the grace of God.” On the next sabbath day “almost the whole city came together to hear the word of God” (verse 44). The Jews were envious of the success that Paul and Barnabas were having and spoke against them (verse 46). Paul and Barnabas, then, turned to the Gentiles. When this move was made to the Gentiles, it is said, “And as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (verse 48, KJV).
The Greek word for “ordained” is tassō. It means “to ordain,” “to appoint,” “to allot,” or “to assign.” The form of the word that appears in verse 48 is tetagmenoi. It is a perfect passive participle form of tassō. It is preceded by ēsan which is the imperfect form of the Greek word eimi (to be). The expression ēsan tetagmenoi is what is called in the Greek a periphrastic pluperfect construction. The literal meaning would be “as many as were having been appointed to eternal life believed.” Or in a less literal way, it would be “as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed.” The “had been appointed to eternal life” or the “appointment to eternal life” had occurred before they heard and believed the gospel that was presented by Paul and Barnabas. However, the wording does not require that this appointment to eternal life must be a reference to eternity past. I think what the verse is telling us is that all of those who had been saved prior to their hearing the New Testament gospel subsequently believed when they heard the gospel being presented by Paul and Barnabas. At the moment of their salvation in the past, they were appointed to eternal life. When they heard about the redemptive work of Jesus the Messiah, they believed and became New Testament believers.” [Forlines, F. L. (2011). Classical Arminianism: A Theology of Salvation. (J. M. Pinson, Ed.) (pp. 164–165). Nashville, TN: Randall House. Emphasis added.]
The national conflict imposed by the Jews is made even more obvious in the final words of this chapter.
“The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 13:49-52 emphasis added)
The overwhelming point of contention among the people of the first century is the mystery that is just then being revealed for the very first time in history. That mystery is explained by Paul in Ephesians 3:1-6. It is the mystery that has become very common to us now and we refer to as the “good news” or the “gospel.”
It is this gospel truth “…that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus…”(Eph. 3:6). But imagine living in a world where the most notable spiritual and political leaders strongly believed and enforced through beatings and imprisonment their view that only the Jews are appointed to eternal life. Just imagine the conflict and type of words that would be used by the “apostle to the Gentiles” as he attempted to rebut this contentious war against the mystery of God’s eternal plan for the redemption of all nations. In that historical context a statement like we see in Acts 13:48 most likely carries the intent to address the Israelites’ objections to God’s in-grafting of many nations rather than the Calvinistic conflict we see today created by Western individualism.