Monday, July 25, 2011

Calvinism, Arminianism, Predestination, and the fate of every human who has ever lived

This is it. I've been hoping to write this post for a while, wherein I finally weigh in on the centuries old friendly debate on Calvinism and Arminianism, two dominant schools of thought in Protestant theology. And remember, I have the spiritual gifts of knowledge and wisdom, so I'm right. (Joke) First I'll summarize both views in my own words and provide some evidence. (All citations from ESV) Then I'll proceed to tear both positions to shreds. (Especially Calvinism) Let's go.


Though Calvinism is much better known, Arminianism actually came about first in 1610, and the "five points of Calvinism" were a response nine years later to the five articles of remonstrance. It presents a "two-handed" view to salvation--God calls us to believe, and we respond by believing. Both parts are necessary for our salvation, and the choice of whether to believe or not is up to our free will.

1. Conditional Election: God elected those who would believe for salvation before the beginning of the world. (John 3:36John 3:16)
2. Unlimited Atonement: Jesus died once for all humankind, but His grace is only effective for those who believe. (Romans 6:10, from which we can conclude that Christ died once for all, but in conjunction with #1 only those who believe will be saved)
3. Total Depravity: We cannot be good without God. (Romans 3:23, John 15:5)
4. Resistible Grace: By our free will we can resist God's calling to salvation. (Acts 7:51)
5. Conditional Perseverance: If we turn to God and decide to follow Him, by His grace He will sanctify us and enable us to please Him. If we later consciously turn away and reject Him, it is possible that He turns away from us and we lose our salvation. (The remonstrants were not sure enough about that last part to assert it)

As stated above, the five points of Calvinism came about nine years after the five articles of remonstrance. They were actually not written by John Calvin, who had been dead for over sixty years, but were based on his theological writings. While agreeing with the remonstrants on the total depravity of mankind, they presented a "one-handed" view of salvation where it is based entirely on God's action. Because of this central tenet, the Biblical term "predestination" Ephesians 1:5, Romans 8:29-30) is often used interchangeably with Calvinism. Unlike the five articles of remonstrance, they come in a handy acronym, TULIP.

Total Depravity: By nature, everyone is sinful and selfish and no one is inclined to love or believe on God. By ourselves, we are morally unable to choose God. (Again Romans 3:23, John 15:5)
Unconditional Election: God chooses some for salvation solely by His will and mercy, and not based on anything in our nature or our willingness to believe. Those He has not chosen receive the just penalty for their sins. (John 15:16, Romans 9:15-16, 22-23)
Limited Atonement: Christ's death only atoned for the sins of God's elect. (John 10:14-15 states that Jesus is the good shepherd and lays down His life for His sheep [the elect], 10:28 states that He will not lose any of His sheep, and Matthew 7:13-14 states that not everyone will receive eternal life; therefore He did not lay down His life for everyone)
Irresistible Grace: Whoever God purposes to save, will definitely be saved; i.e., God's calling through the Holy Spirit cannot be resisted. (John 6:37, 39-40, 44-45, 65)
Perseverance of the Saints: Everyone who comes to have true faith in Christ will continue in that saving faith until the end. (Again John 10:28, Romans 8:38-39many, many more)

I should also cite Ephesians 2:1-10 as it is another foundational passage cited by Calvinists, and my pastor drew heavily from it when preaching on Hope's reformed (Calvinistic) theology. Also because I don't feel like I've thrown enough Bible at you yet.

My Response:

Before continuing, I should emphasize that while disagreeing with Calvinism, I have nothing but respect for dedicated Christians who adhere to it. Indeed most of the theologians and preachers I admire (John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Wayne Grudem, Tim Keller, John Owen, Jonathan Edwards, and Charles Spurgeon) and many of my personal friends are Calvinists, and it is the theology adhered to by my church, so I maintain no bitterness against Calvinism. I don't believe that it is heresy or a barrier to salvation, but a legititmate interpretation of scripture. In language my church has used, it is an "open-handed issue", or one that I don't need to hold onto as part of my faith. Part of the reason the Calvinism-Arminianism debate has so little impact on the church is that it has little practical impact on Christian life or the ministry of the church. There is no debate that you need to believe on Christ to attain salvation, or that those who forsake the faith are not saved. (Calvinists would argue that they never were, Arminians that they lost their salvation) With all that said, here is my position.

You may have noticed that except for the last article of remonstrance, I provided passages supporting all the points. Both positions appear to be biblical, yet they disagree sharply on the precise nature of salvation. How can that be? As a believer in the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture, I view apparent contradictions in the Bible not as proof that Christianity is not logically coherent, but an indication that we've interpreted wrongly. Many plausible, yet false teachings come from misinterpreting one verse and ignoring others that contradict the misinterpretation. (i.e. Harold Camping using 1 Thessalonians 5:4 to say that we can know when Christ is returning, despite Matthew 24:36 explicitly saying otherwise) With that in mind, I'm going to reexamine some of the above cited passages.

(Un)Conditional Election

John 3:16 reads:
"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
 And John 3:36:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.
Neither of these passages mention anything about God's choice, or the election of those who believe. Both simply make perfectly clear that belief in the Son is a condition to salvation (eternal life). Elsewhere (i.e. Ephesians 2:8) we read that it is the only condition. But the concept of God electing some for salvation is certainly biblical; quite a few passages refer to "God's elect". John 15:16 makes fairly clear that God's election of us is not based on our choosing Him, but His choosing us.
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.
So Calvinism seems to win this one.

(Un)Limited Atonement

Romans 6:10 is quite clear that Christ's death was for everyone.
For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.
As is Hebrews:
He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. (7:27)
But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (9:26b)
And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (10:10)
Meanwhile the Calvinistic doctrine is based on an argument formed by combining the three verses listed above. But I saw its weakness even as I was reading it. John 10:14-15 reads (emphasis added):
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
"The" sheep. Not "my" sheep. I'm no Greek scholar, but later in verse 27 the word "ema" is used to refer to "my sheep". This word is missing from verse 15. The Calvinist argument goes that since Christ laid down His life for "His sheep", and He will not lose any of His sheep, and that some "sheep" (people) will be lost, Christ did not lay His life down for everyone. But he did not lay His life down for only His sheep! Without the possessive word, the translation of "the sheep" seems appropriate and it's a stretch to assume that He meant "my sheep". It also reads "the sheep" in the King James version of the Bible, which was new in 1619 and which they would likely have been using. Therefore, in light of the evidence given above that Christ died for everyone, it seems much better to interpret "the sheep" as referring to everyone. A point for Arminianism.

(Ir)Resistible Grace

In light of this, I think a two-handed view of salvation makes much more sense. Yes, God calls us to believe and enables us to have faith, but the choice of whether to accept that faith or reject it is ours. Though it is God's will that everyone be saved, this isn't always the case because for whatever reason He gives our free will a choice, corrupted though it may be.
All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out...And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”...No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day....And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.” (John 6:37, 49-40, 44-45, 65)
These are the verses cited earlier in support of irresistible grace. Yet it seems curiously absent. 37, 39-40, and 44 seem to be more on the topic of perseverance of the saints; more on that later. This is a difficult enough topic to deserve a future post. Verses 45 and 65 are more on the subject, but they simply affirm that God's enabling is essential for anyone to be saved--in our sinfulness, we cannot come to the Father on our own. And Acts 7:51 makes it clear that it is possible to resist the Holy Spirit.

So we arrive at my biggest issue with Calvinism. In emphasizing God's sovereignty and saving power, it seems to disregard the obvious matter of our free will. (I'm just going to assume we have it; if you have any doubt as to this, take some time to examine your own consciousness) Here I define "free will" as the ability to control our own thoughts, intentions, choices, and actions in any situation. Yes, God calls us to Himself and without this calling no one can see Him rightly, but it is also up to us to respond to this call and be saved. Perhaps God could make this choice for us somehow, but He doesn't. My guess is He gets the most glory and joy when His children freely choose Him; we're free agents, not automata.

But there is some truth to the idea of "irresistible grace". When we come to a true understanding of who God is, who we are, and the good news of the gospel, not to turn to Him and be saved is insane. Repentance is a choice we make when we realize we have no choice. It's my suspicion that virtually anyone who doesn't follow God does so because their view of Him is distorted, too small, or inaccurate.

The Alpha and the Omega

God is described as eternal (Deuteronomy 33:27), unchanging (Malachi 3:6), knowing all things (John 16:30), and "the Alpha and the Omega" (Revelation 22:13). He was there at the beginning of time (John 1:1Genesis 1:1) and has a plan to unite all things in Himself (Ephesians 1:10). It first glance this seems incompatible with the fact that we have free will; aren't we all just puppets in God's master plan? But God is more than an omniscient puppetmaster. If He knows all things, then He knows how we will freely act, and has somehow incorporated our free actions into His plan! Throughout the Bible we see God working through people's free actions to further His redemptive work, consciously (the patriarchs, the apostles...) or unconsciously (King Nebuchadnezzar, Joseph's brothers in Genesis 50:20). God is even seen to incorporate evil (Judas' betrayal, the Babylonians in Habakkuk 1, the Pharaoh in Exodus) into His plan. How exactly this all works is extremely mysterious and beyond our capacity to know; in Isaiah 55:9 God proclaims "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." I like to think of it as the difference between our thoughts and a bug's thoughts, only multiplied infinityfold.

Now the challenge is to incorporate this concept (or what we can know of it, anyway) into our idea of salvation. Hearing about God predestining people for adoption through Christ conjures up images in my head of God going down a checklist of everyone who would ever live, pencil in hand, sealing peoples' fates, which I think gives the wrong idea. God encompasses time and has perfect knowledge of everything that will every happen. For Him there is no distinction between the making of the plan and its fulfillment. Our choosing Him, free as it is, is part of His plan and happens by His will, power, grace, and enabling as well as our free choice of Him. Perhaps God's will is on a higher level than ours, allowing it to enact His plan while leaving us free.

The idea of the "elect", those God saves, is certainly Biblical, appearing 11 times in the New Testament. That God sovereignly chooses some for salvation is undeniable. As I argued above, the Calvinistic view that this election is unmerited by anything we do or are seems more likely. So, you might ask (and I, until I was writing this, would have argued), if God sovereignly chooses some for salvation, why not choose everyone so everyone can be saved? True, 2 Peter 3:39 reads:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
So God doesn't want anyone to perish in their sins. And yet,
The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18)
Odd as it sounds, God has two apparently conflicting desires--showing off His love and mercy, and showing off His wrath and justice. But both of these advance His overall purpose of bringing glory to Himself, so there need be no conflict. The cross was God's masterstroke--through it He was perfectly loving in granting justification to anyone to repents and believes, and perfectly just in pouring out His wrath onto His own Son. Romans 9:22-24 clarifies:
What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory—even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?
So not only do God's wrath and mercy not need to conflict with each other, it seems like their contrast further enhances God's glory. Though He loves to see even one come to know Him, God is just and glorified by the exercising of His wrath. And at the same time, He shows off His love and mercy by postponing it so we have a chance to come to believe. As my pastor Steve says, "The miracle of the gospel is that there is a Genesis 4."

Once Saved, Always Saved?

Before wrapping up, I should touch on my position on the last point, the perseverance of the saints--the question of if it is possible to lose one's salvation. This is a tough question that I don't really like to think about. During my sophomore year at the U I went to a debate between Christian writer Dinesh D'Souza and pastor-turned-atheist Dan Barker. Quite frankly, the idea that someone so strong in the faith could turn against it frightened me.

The emphatic nature of the Calvinist position on this matter seems in response to the uncertainty of the Arminian one. As I mentioned above, the Calvinist view has abundant scriptural support. Indeed, the idea of somehow losing "eternal life" doesn't make much sense at all. But sin's power to deceive runs deep and allows us to live remarkable convincing counterfeits of Christianity. God, perhaps anticipating this, has given us a few verses that address knowing we are saved.
And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-13)
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. (Romans 8:9)
1 John tells us that if we have/believe in Christ, we have eternal life. By applying the contrapositive to the Romans verse, we conclude that anyone who has Christ has the Spirit, so eternal life is marked by the empowering and acting of the Holy Spirit. So to know if you truly have eternal life, you can look outward to whether your life is bearing the fruits of the Spirit (Galations 5:22-24) or inward to the acting and calling of the Spirit in your heart.

But as people like Dan Barker demonstrate, it might yet be possible to be mistaken about this. In that case, there is one way to know:
For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (Hebrews 3:14)
But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 24:13)
So our present condition in Christ is based on our future faith. Only with a God who transcends time! I hope this isn't discouraging or confusing to anyone, because I don't mean it to be. If you aren't sure you're saved, don't worry! 2 Timothy 2:13 assures us that God remains faithful to us no matter what, and the Hebrews and Matthew verses call us to persevere! As long as continue to believe, God is still with us and we have eternal life. And a healthy amount of doubt is what separates mature, fully alive Christians from dogmatists and legalists--we shouldn't put any faith in our own faith, but in God and His faithfulness.

Based on these verses, along with the earlier mentioned evidence that God preserves His own until the end, we can conclude that no one whom God has chosen for salvation can lose it. But whether we are saved is not for us, much less anyone else, to know for certain until we meet God face to face. Until then, we keep the faith and continue to seek after Him.

A quick aside on the so-called "unforgivable sin" mentioned by Jesus in Matthew 12:31-32 and Luke 12:10. Again, I could probably do another post on this issue, but the consensus among theologians that this sin, "blasphemy against the Spirit" constitutes a willful, settled rejection of God--not a sin you commit carelessly or ignorantly. The reasoning goes that only someone who understands the Spirit and His working in the world has enough understanding to seriously attribute His work to a demon as the pharisees did. In light of the discussion above, one can hypothesize that this sin cannot be committed by one of God's elect. (Similar to how no one speaking by the Spirit can say "Jesus be cursed", 1 Corinthians 12:3) At any rate, the fact that Jesus mentions this sin only once each in two gospels indicates that He doesn't want us to worry too much about it, and it is not a central part of His message.


My position on predestination is a combination of Calvinism and Arminianism. I believe that as part of His ongoing plan of redemption for the world, God chose some to enjoy His forgiveness and mercy, and others to suffer His just wrath for their sins. This choice was not based on anything in our nature, but is echoed in our choosing or not choosing Him. We freely believe because since the beginning God has freely predestined and called us to Himself. How our free will can operate under God's sovereign will is a mystery, but somehow it does. My personal version of the five points/articles can be remembered with the handy, oh-so-easy acronym TUURP. (i.e. the sound you make when food tries to go down both pipes at once)

Total Depravity: Without God we are slaves to sin and death in every area of our lives, and without His grace we can do nothing to please Him. (Romans 3:23, John 15:5)
Unconditional Election: Because God has chosen and called some for salvation (Ephesians 1:4), they come to faith and their sins are justified by the atonement of Christ. (John 3:36)
Universal Atonement: Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for the sins of every (fallen) human who will ever live. (Romans 6:10) However, this free gift of forgiveness can be freely accepted or rejected and only saves those who believe in Him. (John 3:16, Matthew 7:13-14)
Resistible Grace: God actively works in peoples' lives in ways seen and unseen to allow them to glimpse His nature and believe in Him. (John 6:44, 2 Timothy 1:9) However, because of our free will, corrupted by the sinful nature, some willfully reject this work and so fail to see Him clearly and believe. (Acts 7:51)
Perseverance of the Elect: Those God has chosen and called to Himself will continue in faith and eternal life until the end. (John 10:28, Romans 8:38-39) However, we cannot know who is called and who is not until the end (Hebrews 3:34, Matthew 24:13), so this is not an excuse not to preach the gospel!


At this point, I am personally sick of theology, and I imagine you are as well. (Congratulations on reading this far, at any rate) In the style of my church's sermons, I'm going to try to leave you with a few ways to begin to apply this knowledge. As I said before, this debate should have little to no practical impact on how we live. There is no question that those who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved and have eternal life, and this is what we should strive for; this is what we are called to. The knowledge that God has predestined people for Himself doesn't immediately affect us, since we have no idea who He has predestined! And one of the wonders of the gospel is that we get to be active participants in His redemptive plan for the world. Make no mistake, God has no need for our help--He intends service to the Kingdom to be a joy. And so, in light of the supremacy of Christ, let us carry out the mission He left us with.

A few final questions:

  1. How big is your view of God? Do you believe that He is firmly in control of all things?
  2. Have you worked out what your "open-hand" and "closed-hand" beliefs are?
  3. Do you seek after the Holy Spirit as the key to redeemed life and the seal of our eternal life?
  4. Are you excited to be part of God's work in the world?

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