Capernaum, Calvinism, and Christ
"Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:20-24, NKJV)
I recently encountered an interesting argument in favor of man’s free will based upon Matthew 11:20-24. Both he who raised the point, and those who have already responded, are my betters by both grace and degree. Nevertheless, the honest inquiry seemed to me an admirable adventure for even one of such lesser attainments as I. If I could only manage to understand the problem proposed I should not think my efforts entirely unrewarded.
In the immediate context Jesus is taking several towns to task. Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum are especially the objects of our Savior’s severe censure for their refusal to repent in spite of significant signs. Many miracles had been done in their midst. Demons were discharged of their hominal homes (Luke 4:35), servants saved from sickness (Luke 7:10), and all manner of maladies mended. But the bulk simply would not believe. And yet consider the love of Jesus Christ in this! When they would not be melted by His mercy, He then seeks to rouse their repentance by rebuke!
And what is the nature of this rebuke pronounced by Christ upon them?
First we find it to be a threatening rebuke. “Woe to you”. Do we not hear an echo of Old Testament judgments in this rebuke? Remember Amos the prophet when he says to Zion “Woe to you who put far off the day of doom” (Amos 6:3). Is not that the sin of these cities as well? Or what of Isaiah’s threatening warning against Jerusalem? Do they not find some fulfillment here in our text as well? “…they declare their sin as Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to their soul! They have brought evil upon themselves” (Isaiah 3:9). Oh sinner, do you not hear something of Christ’s woe upon your soul if you too, like these towns, refuse to surrender to this Savior?
Second, it appears to be a reasonable rebuke. Jesus reminds them of His might deeds. “…if the mighty works which were done in you…” (Matthew 11:23). He performed not mere works, but MIGHTY works. Oh how unreasonable the refusal to repentant given these miracles among them! It was as if Christ were saying in the voice of the Lord from Isaiah “Come now, let us reason together, though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow” (Isaiah 1:18). Be reasonable oh Capernaum! And be reasonable dear reader! Why choose death rather than life? Why choose guilt over forgiveness? Why choose eternal misery over eternal joy? In the words of Ezekiel I say to you “Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:11)
Third, this is a most devastating rebuke. It is devastating because it declares their real depravity. So sunk down into insensitive sin, so hardened of heart, so seared into insanity that even Sodom, wicked Sodom, would have sought the place of repentance before them…had they seen these sights. What a condemning comparison our Lord conveys! “If the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day” (Matthew 11:23). To whom much is given, much will be required. Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum could never plead that sufficient opportunity had been denied them. They had much more than others, and so shall fare worse than others as well. Oh you who read these words…have you heard that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Have you heard that it is given unto man “once to die, and after that the judgment”? (Hebrews 9:27) Do you know that escape from sin and death and hell are freely offered to you in the gospel? “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). So why, dear soul, do you wait? Today my friend, today, is the day of salvation. Let not this devastating rebuke upon these unrepentant residents be the very words of rebuke you hear pronounced upon your soul some day!
And it is here, in this final phrase “would have repented” (11:21) and “would have remained” (11:23) that we are confronted with our conundrum concerning the freedom of the will. Jesus compares the act of their will (Capernaum’s) with the predictable response of the will of Tyre, Sidon and Sodom under similar circumstances. It appears to the earnest and honest inquirer, to whom I am indebted and whose point I am seeking to see, that only under circumstances of a free will could our Lord justly make such sobering statements. If the will is not free, then no mountain of miracles in their midst, not a hundred hospitals of healings, could ever produce a response of repentance. But our holy Savior, God in the flesh, has solemnly stated they would have repented under this dispensation of power in their pale. If He is right, and surely He is, then it would appear that the will is in some measure and in some ways free to decide. Calvinism is wrong. Arminius was right.
But I hope my disposition toward the doctrines of grace does not unduly disqualify me from digging a bit deeper into this delicate mystery. I only offer some questions which occur to my mind which lead me to think that another conclusion is more likely.
1) Does not the whole context and focus, as above described, leave room to interpret Christ’s words in a more figurative and human construction than a strictly theological way? And as such, are we not pressing the language too far to insist upon a finely tuned discussion of the freedom of man’s will? He says of Capernaum that they were “exalted to heaven” (vs. 23). Would we, with similar scrutiny, demand that this declaration requires the relocation of this town into the realm of glory? Earlier in the same chapter our Savior said of John that he was “Elijah who is come” (vs. 14), He describes heaven as a “kingdom” (vs. 12), and he compares the present generation to “children sitting in the marketplace” (vs. 16). Are we not guilty of exercising our exegesis a bit beyond exhaustion to insist upon a literal “repentance” amongst the citizens of Sodom? Is not the more natural explanation to say that Christ was adapting His language to human categories so as to provoke a response from this recalcitrant race?
2) If such an answer does not satisfy, consider another suggestion. Did Jesus say in this text, or it’s parallel in Luke 10:12-15, that Tyre, Sidon and Sodom would have believed unto salvation given the identical opportunities afforded to these other towns? It was said they would “repent”. But surely there is specimen of sorrow for sin that falls short of saving faith in Christ. Not every reformation is true repentance. The word can be used in several ways. Could not Christ have been saying, with equal force and comparable clarity that Tyre, Sidon and Sodom would have responded at least…whereas these Israelites were like statues of ice, frozen solid in the stubbornness of sin. Sackcloth and ashes is better than scornfulness and apathy, though even this falls short of new birth. “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13) is the real test of true conversion. The Calvinist does not say man cannot try again, but simply that he cannot, of his own will, be born again. The text then proves not a free will, but simply a responding will to the circumstances and evidence around them.
3) But finally, does not the language of this very chapter, and the message which lies upon the surface, indicate rather the utter depravity of man’s fallen heart and inability to respond without the aid of God’s irresistible grace? Fallen man is deaf to God’s cry, hence Jesus said in verse 15 “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!” But sin, according to the Scriptures, has blinded our eyes and deafened our ears. Just like the days of Nehemiah, so man is today and always has been since the Fall. “They acted proudly, and did not heed your commandments…stiffened their necks and would not hear” (Neh. 9:29). Man is like the idols that he makes, having “eyes but cannot see, and ears but cannot hear” (Jer. 5:21). Tell me, fair reader, from whence come these “ears to hear” if not from heaven? For the “natural man receives not the things of the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Does not our very chapter tell us how these “ears to hear” come about? They are from the “Lord of heaven and earth” who hides these things from “the wise and prudent” and reveals these things “to babes” (11:25). Does this come about by man’s will ultimately or God’s will? Listen to our chapter and see. “Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him” (11:27). It is the will of Christ, not the will of man that is spoken of here. My dear reader, friend, and possessor of an eternal soul: if those exposed to the immediate presence and miracles of Christ would not believe…what hope do you have if not for the irresistible grace of God? If Bethsaida balked at the Incarnate Son, what hope have you if aided only by your natural will, inclinations, and understanding? If Capernaum’s heart was calloused…how much more is yours and mine? I, your soul’s well-wisher, implore you to cast yourself upon the mercy of God in repentance, sorrow and shame and lay hold upon Christ freely offered to you in the gospel! You will discover, I believe, that the faith exercised unto salvation, is a faith received by pure grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, lest anyone should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).