The high Calvinist doctrine of God’s sovereignty including evil as part of God’s plan, purpose, and determining power blatantly contradicts Scripture passages that reveal “God is love” (1 Jn 4:9), takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezk 18:32), wants everyone to be saved (Ezk 18:32; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9), and never tempts anyone (Jas 1:13). To be sure, Calvinists have clever but unconvincing explanations of these and numerous other passages of Scripture. R. Olson, Against Calvinism (Zondervan 2011), 99.
I myself have discussed all of his perfunctory prooftexts, so let’s do something different. Take the following passage:
If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, 2 and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ 3 you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. 4 You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. 5 But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst (Deut 13:1-5).
i) Isn’t this a clearcut example of divine solicitation to sin? God, through the instrumentality of the false prophet, is “testing” the covenant community. Because, in this case, the false prophet is able to perform miracles or truly foretell the future, that tempts people to follow him. For his message is attested by the classic authenticating signs of a true prophet.
ii) And this isn’t just any old sin. This is the sin of apostasy. One of the gravest sins. There is no sin worse than apostasy.
iii) The function of this test is to sift the covenant community. Some members will succumb to the temptation while others will remain faithful.
iv) What’s the relationship between vv1-2 and v3? Well, one possible explanation is divine empowerment. The fact that a false prophet can work miracles or truly foretell the future goes beyond normal human ability. So this naturally raises the question, how did he acquire this superhuman ability? V3 may be attributing his ability to divine empowerment.
Of course, this attribution doesn’t exclude the possibility that he is possessed. God could dispatch an “evil spirit” to possess him (e.g. 1 Kgs 22:19-23).
v) In any event, the text tells us that God lies behind the false prophet. The false prophet is a tool. God is using the false prophet to test the allegiance of his people. Some will pass the test while others will fail the test.
Through the false prophet, God is tempting his people to commit apostasy. To abandon the true God for false gods. Due to its miraculous attestation, this is very seductive. A powerful and, for some, persuasive inducement to deny the faith.
To be sure, God isn’t tempting them to sin for the sake of sin. Rather, this is a refining process. It will purify Israel by burning off the dross.
Still, in the passage before us, it’s unmistakably the case that false prophets are able to perform prodigies so that God may test the covenant community. That’s the divine purpose which underlies this ordeal. Through the medium of the false prophet, God is inciting people to defect from the true faith. That’s tempting them to commit evil. There’s no way around it. That’s right there in the text.
vi) Now at this point an Arminian like Olson might scream Jas 1:13 in my ear. Haven’t you read Jas 1:13? That’s what’s wrong with Calvinism. You blatantly contradict Scripture!
However, this is not in the first place a debate over the Calvinism. Rather, this is just a matter of what Scripture says. Deut 13:1-5 means whatever it means. You don’t have to be a Calvinist to interpret that passage the way I did. You only have to accept it on its own terms. Calvinism is not a necessary presupposition of my interpretation. Although I think this passage (and others like it) is broadly supportive of Calvinism, it doesn’t require a Calvinistic grid to understand the passage the way I do. Indeed, the passage doesn’t really require much exegesis. It pretty much speaks for itself. I’m just making a bit more explicit what is logically implicit in the passage.
vii) Moreover, there’s no reason we should have to filter this passage through Jas 1:13. We might just as well filter Jas 1:13 through Deut 13:1-5. It’s not as if Scripture tells us that Jas 1:13 supplies the interpretive grid through which other passages like Deut 13:1-5 must pass. Deut 13:1-5 is no less inspired than Jas 1:13.
viii) And it’s not as if Deut 13:1-5 is a merely incidental passage of Scripture. To the contrary, along with Deut 18:15-22, this is the paradigmatic passage concerning false prophecy. This is foundational for subsequent discussions of false prophecy in both the OT (e.g. Jer 14:14; 23:9ff.; 29:8; Ezk 13:6-9) and the NT (e.g. 2 Thes 2:9-11; 1 Jn 4:1-4; Rev 13:13-14; 16:14; 19:20).
The Olivet Discourse contains a perfect illustration of the principle given in Deut 13:1-5:
22 And if those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. 23 Then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you beforehand. 26 So, if they say to you, ‘Look, he is in the wilderness,’ do not go out. If they say, ‘Look, he is in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.29 “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Mt 24:22-31).
Indeed, the very wording is probably modeled on Deut 13:
These false messiahs and false prophets will offer “signs and wonders,” a phrase that echoes OT tradition, especially Deut 13:1(2), which expressly warns of the false prophet who hopes to gain acceptance through signs. C. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20 (Nelson 2001), 323.
Here we have false prophets and messianic pretenders who, through miraculous portents and prodigies, will lead astray a portion of the covenant community. In this case, the new covenant community. Yet God will preserve the elect.
Once again, God is winnowing the wheat from the chaff. An elect remnant will survive the ordeal.