Richard Watson (1781-1833) was an Arminian theologican. In chapter 27 of his Theological Institutes he examines several passages in Scripture that are commonly used to support unconditional election.
Unconditional election asserts that God, before the foundation of the world, made an unchangeable decree in which He chose ‘a set number of people’ out of the entire human race to receive eternal life. These elect, and only these, are given the necessary and irresistible grace that enables the person to believe.
Watson disagreed with this, asserting that the election of individuals to salvation was based on foreseen faith and the unchangeable decree that God would save, through the blood of Christ, whosoever should believe.
One of the passages Watson examines is Acts 13:48 (NET), arguing that those ‘appointed to eternal life’ does not refer to unconditional election.
When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed.
Watson makes some observations to refute this, including examining each of the other seven passages (Matthew 28:16; Luke 7:8; Acts 15:2; 22:10; 28:23;Romans 13:1; 1 Corinthians 16:15) in which the Greek word τασσο (appointed) appears.
He concludes that:
Thus the word never takes the sense of predestination; but, … [the] prevalent idea is that of settling, ordering, and resolving; and the meaning of the text [Acts 13:48] is, that as many as were fixed and resolved upon eternal life, as many as were careful about, and determined on salvation, believed. For that the historian is speaking of the candid and serious part of the hearers of the apostles, in opposition to the blaspheming Jews; that is, of those Gentiles “who, when they heard this were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord,” is evident from the context. The persons who then believed, appear to have been under a previous preparation for receiving the Gospel; and were probably religious proselytes associating with the Jews.
Watson’s conclusion, that the Gentiles who were “devoting” themselves to receiving eternal life are those that believed, has ample support. Gentile proselytes are mentioned in Acts 13:43. They would certainly fit Watson’s description of those who were “fixed and resolved upon eternal life”. When these people who were diligently seeking eternal life heard the message that Paul and Barnabas proclaimed they readily trusted in Jesus. And, as Watson notes, the passage describes the Jews in Acts 13:46 as personally responsible for rejecting the offer of eternal life.
Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 16:15, shows us that this Greek word τασσο can be translated as “devoted” (ESV, NASB, NET) indicating that people are focused on accomplishing something. In the Corinthians passage the people were devoting themselves to the ministry of the saints. In Acts 13:48 they are devoted to finding out how to receive eternal life.
The question we have to examine next is, does the Greek grammar that undergirds Acts 13:48 also support this interpretation?
In Acts 13:48, the verb (τασσο) is a participle in the perfect tense. In this tense the verb can be parsed as being in the middle or the passive voice. If it is in the middle voice it means that the people appointed (or devoted) themselves to eternal life, which is how Watson reads it. If it is the passive voice it tells us that the Gentiles are not performing the action of “appointing”. Someone else is performing the action and appointing them.
The grammar supports both of these translations:
- many who had devoted themselves to eternal life believed
- many who were appointed to eternal life believed
The first translation looks a lot like the passage in 1 Corinthians 16:15. However, it is important to note that in the Corinthians passage the verb (τασσο) is in the active voice and has the noun “themselves” explicitly provided. So the rendering there is clearly “they devoted themselves”. However, the grammar in Acts 13:48 is less clear. Daniel Wallace (link) notes the use of the middle voice is ‘extremely rare’, which is why most translations of Acts 13:48 favor the passive voice. The people that believed were being appointed by another actor. The common interpretation is that God is the actor, appointing these people to salvation.
It is important to note that this passage does not tell us why God appointed these people to eternal life. It is possible that this appointment to eternal life refers to God’s unconditionally electing them. However, it is also just as probable that the people were appointed to eternal life because God foreknew they would have faith.
That leaves us with these possible interpretations:
- many who had devoted themselves to eternal life believed
- many who were unconditionally elected by God to eternal life were given irresistible grace and believed
- many who were elected by God to eternal life based on His foresight of their faith were given resistible grace and believed
Since neither the passage, nor its context, nor the grammar firmly guide us to the proper interpretation, it is our theological views that will determine or understanding of this passage.
John Wesley, another Arminian theologian, in his Explanatory Notes on the Bible, favors something close to the third interpretation. Here is what he wrote:
It is observable, the original word is not once used in Scripture to express eternal predestination of any kind. The sum is, all those and those only, who were now ordained, now believed. Not that God rejected the rest: it was his will that they also should have been saved: but they thrust salvation from them (Acts 13:46). Nor were they who then believed constrained to believe. But grace was then first copiously offered them. And they did not thrust it away, so that a great multitude even of Gentiles were converted. In a word, the expression properly implies, a present operation of Divine grace working faith in the hearers.
This passage in Acts is a good example of how difficult it can be to interpret a passage and that often there are several possibilities. It also demonstrates how our theological presuppositions can influence us in the process.