Acts 2:23 and 4:28 can be responded to together because they both refer to the same idea. 2:23 says that Jesus was “handed over to [Jews] according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” and was “crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law.” Similarly, 4:28 says that Herod and Pontius Pilate gathered together “to do whatever [God’s] hand and [his] plan had predestined to take place.” Both verses allude to the idea that the crucifixion was God’s definite, predestined plan.
Ajith Fernando claims that we see here “the paradox between divine providence and human responsibility.”(1) This response is typical of Calvinists. However, it is not a paradox at all, but can be reasonably explained. Gregory Boyd observes that “Both texts speak of the event of the crucifixion being preordained and foreknown. But neither speak of Herod or Pilate being preordained or foreknown to carry out this event.”(2) Of course the crucifixion was the definite plan predestined by God!(3) But, as Boyd says, these verses do not say that the actions of the Jews, those outside the law, Herod, and Pilate were included in the predestined plan of God.
John Sanders states that hōrismenē boulē (definite plan) in 2:23 denotes “a boundary-setting will.”(4) Here, the crucifixion is the “boundary,” meaning God decided beforehand that Christ would be crucified, and established, based on his precise foreknowledge, the perfect time for this to occur.
Furthermore, it cannot be said from these verses that people cannot resist God’s will. Luke himself is aware of the fact that people can and always have resisted God’s will. Luke 7:30 says that “by refusing to be baptized by [John the Baptist], the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (emphasis mine). In Acts 7:51, before Stephen was martyred, he exclaims, “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did” (emphasis mine).
The other verse in Acts Calvinists use to support their theology is 13:48: when Paul and Barnabas announced to a large crowd of people that the salvation offering had come to the Gentiles, the Gentiles rejoiced and “as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”(5)
C. K. Barrett says that this verse remains “as unqualified a statement of absolute predestination as is found anywhere in the NT.”(6) Indeed, the verse seems to be that, not only because of its wording, but also because it is reminiscent of the idea that names are written into the book of life.(7) But the verse only seems to point to a Calvinist theology of individual predestination when taken at face value. Paton Gloag voices that here, “Luke merely mentions a historical fact—that those who believed were appointed to eternal life.”(8) This translation is more likely. The word ἐπίστευσαν (believed) precedes the rest of the statement ὅσοι ἦσαν τεταγμένοι εἰς ζωὴν αἰώνιον (all who were appointed to eternal life). Thus, the text could very easily be read, “all who believed were appointed to eternal life.”
In this case, there is no problem at all; the wording no longer suggests that the appointing came before the believing, and the similarity to the references of the book of life is more natural, for none of those references state that specific names were written in the book of life before the foundations of the earth—only that the names of those who believe are included.
This translation fits better within the context as well. Verse 46 says that the Jews rejected the word of God and did not consider themselves worthy of eternal life (meaning they were not appointed to eternal life because they rejected the Gospel). So then, Paul and Barnabas turned to the Gentiles, and all who believed were found worthy of eternal life.
All of that being said, this interpretation has not been used by most Bible translations. As Esther Yue Ng suggests, ἦσαν τεταγμένοι (were appointed) in this passage “implies an action that precedes the Gentiles’ believing” and contends that the verse is “one among a number of biblical passages that comports better with the Calvinist/Reformed understanding of divine election.”(9) Though I disagree, even if one does not accept Gloag’s interpretation, the Calvinist theological conclusion of the verse is still not the conclusion that should be drawn. Boyd observes that “the verse does not tell us when these people were destined. . . . 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.”(10) Rather, Boyd continues, the text
only requires us to accept that the Spirit of God had been preparing receptive hearts to accept the preaching that was soon coming their way. . . . Those Gentiles who didn’t resist the Spirit’s work in their lives were ‘ripe’ for the message of Paul and Barnabas. In this sense, they were already ‘destined for eternal life,’ and thus they accepted the good news when it was preached to them.(11)Boyd’s conclusion is quite plausible; definitely more-so than the Calvinist interpretation. This is true also of Acts 18:10 and 16:14. When God says “I have many people in this city” (18:10), he could be referring to those who were “ripe for the message,” as Boyd says. Lydia in 16:14 is an example of such a person. The verse says that God opened her heart to Paul’s message. However, this was not without her will. Lydia is introduced in the verse as “a worshiper of God.” Thus, she had already subjected herself to God’s work. By worshiping God, she yielded to him and, in a sense, let him open her heart to Paul’s teaching.“Whatever be the precise nuance of the words,” says I. Howard Marshall, “there is no suggestion that [the Gentiles] received eternal life independently of their own act of conscious faith.”(12)
We have seen that, when examined closely, all the verses in Acts that seem to support Calvinism actually provide no platform on which Calvinists can base their theology. Any notion of individual predestination must be read into the texts because the verses themselves do not imply the conclusions that Calvinists make of them. Thus, as far as the book of Acts goes, Christians today do not have to fear that they are ignoring “Calvinist verses” and can maintain a love-centered understanding of the character of God.
(1) Ajith Fernando, The NIV Application Commentary: Acts (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 102.
(2) Gregory A. Boyd, “How do you respond to Acts 2:23 and 4:28?” Reknew.org, http://reknew.org/2008/01/how-do-you-respond-to-acts-223-and-428/
(3) It is not applicable to this study, but Acts 2:23 has also been used to refute open theism because of its reference to God’s foreknowledge. In addressing this, we must ask “What is foreknowledge?” Is it knowing exactly every single thing that is ever going to happen? Or could it be knowing all of the possibilities that the future holds? We should ask what Luke’s purpose was in writing these verses in the first place. Was to establish the reality of a theological paradox of God controlling people’s actions yet holding them responsible for them? Robert W. Wall states otherwise, saying that the verses do not “envisage a predestinarian notion of divine providence but Luke’s logical deduction from his idea of Scripture. That is, if the Jesus event and the Spirit’s outpouring both follow the biblical script of God’s salvation, then God must have known about both in advance of their occurrence.” See Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in Vol. 10 of The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 66. Indeed, on similar lines, Richard I. Pervo notes that “Because Luke is more a ‘romantic’ than an ‘ironic’ theologian, he concentrates more on the fact and fulfillment of God’s plan than on what it reveals about the human situation.” See Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, ed. Harold W. Attridge (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 123, n.30.
(4) John Sanders, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence, rev. ed. (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 167.
(5) There has been a debate as to how the word τεταγμένοι should be translated. I have found that the choices include: “set,” “determined,” “appointed,” “destined,” “enrolled,” and a few others. Whichever you prefer will not affect the following study.
(6) C. K. Barrett, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 1 (London: T. & T. Clark, 1994), 658.
(7) F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1988), 267, n.111.
(8) Paton J. Gloag, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1870), 40.
(9) Esther Yue L. Ng, “ἦσαν τεταγμένοι in Acts 13:48: Middle Voice or Passive Voice? Implications for the Doctrine of Divine Election,” CGST Journal, 50 (2011): 192, 186.
(10) Boyd, “How do you respond to Acts 13:48?”
(11) Gregory A. Boyd, Is God to Blame? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 190–191. Elsewhere, Boyd elaborates on this concept, saying, “The Father is always looking for people whose hearts may be pliable in his hand (viz. through the Spirit) so he may ‘destine them to eternal life’ by opening up their heart to receive the Gospel.” See Boyd, “How do you respond to Acts 13:48?”
(12) I. Howard Marshall, Acts, Vol. 5 of Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, ed. Leon Morris (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 245.