I occasionally post theology and Bible questions that get sent in by readers. Here is a question that was recently sent in about Acts 16 where it says that the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to heed the things spoken by Paul:
I was just wondering as someone who has moved away from Calvinism how you would handle this passage about Lydia:
On the Sabbath day we went out of the city to the riverside, where prayer was customarily made; and we sat down and spoke to the women who met there. Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” So she persuaded us. . . . So they went out of the prison [Paul and Silas] and entered the house of Lydia; and when they had seen the brethren, they encouraged them and departed. Acts 16:13-15, 40, NKJV
I’m really trying to get my mind outside of Calvinism. But this passage always troubles me particularly the part about God opening her heart. I know there’s another passage of scripture that refers to Satan blinding us lest we believe and be saved.
I have no idea how to understand these since it sounds like God must unblind the unbeliever thus causing them to automatically believe. Of course, if he wants all to come to the saving truth then why doesn’t he do this for everyone?
Any help with understanding this would be awesome.
Here is my attempt at an answer about what this means.
The Lord Opened Her Heart
Great question. You have hit upon one of the key texts which many Calvinists use to defend the fourth point of TULIP: Irresistible Grace. The way this passage is often taught is that prior to God opening Lydia’s heart, she was closed to God and Jesus Christ, closed to salvation, closed to the gospel, and closed to the message of eternal life. It is often pointed out that there were many women along the banks of the river in Philippi that day, but only one believed—the one whose heart was opened by God.
While I value and respect much of what my Calvinist friends teach, this is another example where they misread a text so that it can be used as a proof text for a favorite doctrine. We all do this, of course (I am certain that I am guilty of it as well), but hopefully we have the humility, willingness, openness, and honesty to consider passages in a different light when others present alternative views. I am not saying we must accept alternative views, but we must at least consider them in light of the rest of Scripture and the historical, cultural, and grammatical contexts.
The only reason I bring this up, is because I am convinced that this is what happened to Lydia, and this is what it means when the text says God opened her heart.
Lydia was a God-fearing Gentile
Calvinists say that Lydia was closed to God and Jesus Christ, closed to faith, closed to salvation. The text says something different. The text says that she was on the Sabbath, she was down at the riverbanks where people met to pray (Acts 16:14). Before Paul and Silas had even arrived in Philippi, Lydia was open to spiritual matters. She was seeking God.
In fact, the text is quite clear that far from being closed to God, she was actually worshiping God (Acts 16:14). She wasn’t just worshipping false, pagan deities, but was worshiping the one, true God, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel, the God who became flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. Though she was a Gentile, it appears that she had become a Jewish proselyte, a “God-fearing” Gentile. And again, this is long before Paul and Silas stepped foot in town, long before they preached, and long before “God opened her heart.”
It could be argued, I suppose, that the only reason Lydia became a God-fearing Gentile in the first place is because God was working on her heart. The text doesn’t say this, of course, but I wouldn’t deny it. I would, however, add the clarification that God was probably working on drawing Lydia to Himself long before Paul and Silas came to town in the same way that He works on drawing all people to Himself. So in whatever way God worked on Lydia before she heard Paul’s message, He also works on everyone else.
Lydia responded favorably to God’s work in her life, and she became a God-fearing Gentile. She began to worship the One True God. She probably began to learn the Scriptures, to pray, and to seek to obey God’s will as revealed within the Bible.
God Helped Lydia See the Truth of Paul’s Message
So when Paul and Silas came to town and preached to the women at the riverbank, it was not as if she a blank slate, a person wandering in darkness, dead in her trespasses and sins. She was already a believer to some degree, a believer in God and a follower of His truth revealed as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. So when the text says that God opened her heart, I take this to mean that God helped her see the truth of what Paul was proclaiming, that the Hebrew Scriptures which she learned and followed pointed to Jesus Christ, and that the Hebrew God which she worshipped appeared in the flesh in Jesus Christ.
As such, I would not call Lydia a new believer here, but rather a woman who was already a believer, but who had limited knowledge about what she believed, and who came to a fuller knowledge of her faith through the preaching and teaching of Paul. The act of God opening her heart was an act of illumination by the Spirit to help her see, understand, and grasp the Scriptures in a new way, of making the puzzle pieces fit together in the person and work of Jesus Christ. In this way, what happened to Lydia is not much different than what happened to Peter in Matthew 16 when God revealed to him that Jesus was the Christ, to Apollos when Priscilla and Aquila explained the way of God more fully to him (Acts 18:24-26), and of course, Cornelius in Acts 10.
In this way, Lydia is a female version of Cornelius. Like Lydia, Cornelius was a God-fearing Gentile. He was a man who worshiped and obeyed God (Acts 10:1-2). And the text indicates that as a result of Cornelius’ prayers and alms, God sent an angel in a vision to Cornelius to tell him to seek out Peter (Acts 10:4-8). Cornelius sought the truth of God and responded to the revelation he had been given, as a result, God responded to Cornelius, and gave him a way to receive more specific revelation about the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Others Besides Lydia Believed As Well
Some Calvinists like to say that of all the women at the river that day, only Lydia believed.
Well, the text seems to imply otherwise. The text says that she and her household were baptized. Since she was a rich servant, her household probably included children as well as servants. They all got baptized. And from what we know about Paul, it is unlikely he would have baptized unbelievers. And where and when were they baptized? While they were still at the river. Acts 16:15 says that they were baptized, and then she asked them to come to her household.
Again, this is very similar to what happened with Cornelius (Acts 10:44-48), and with the Philippians jailer (Acts 16:33). There are some cultural things going on here with the act of baptism, and the fact that family members and servants usually followed the religion of the head of their household, but again, the most straightforward way of reading these texts is that more than one person believed, and those that did believe were baptized.
God Drew Lydia, Just as He Draws All
So, here is the summary of my view.
God does draw all people to Himself, and He reveals His nature and His will through creation, conscience, reason, and a variety of other sources. As people respond to the revelation they have received, God provides them with further revelation.
Sometimes this second cycle of revelation is through visions and dreams, other times it might be through God sending a missionary or a preacher, or by getting a Bible into people’s hands. The resources of God are infinite in this regard.
The initial step, of course, comes from God, but this step is toward all people, not just a select few.
In the case of Lydia, she had already responded to numerous cycles of revelation from God, as was evident by her being a God-fearing Gentile. When “the Lord opened her heart,” we should understand it in the same way as when people today says, “I was reading the Bible, and the Lord really helped me understand a particular passage in a whole new way.” Lydia receives illumination by the Spirit about the meaning, significance, and fulfillment of Scripture in Jesus Christ.
But this does not mean that others who did not receive this understanding did not believe; they did. Maybe she explained to them what she had come to see, and so they also came to see it, or maybe they just said, “Well, I still don’t understand everything, but Lydia believes it, and I trust her, so I will believe it also.” We don’t really know, but it does appear that with or without God opening their hearts also, many others besides Lydia also believed.
One thing that helps explain this is something Jesus says in John 10. This post is already too long, however, so we will look at that text tomorrow….
How do you understand the conversation of Lydia in Acts 16? Do you have anything to add (or subtract) from my explanation above? Weigh in below!