My Christianity Today article “The Bonds of Freedom”

My article “The Bonds of Freedom” is now published in Christianity Today (October, 2012) and should be available digitally on line–at least for subscribers. Try:

I will be interested in answers to this question: Does what I say here satisfy (or at least mollify) my Calvinist critics who say Arminians make an idol out of free will (e.g., by elevating it to true freedom)? Of course, any feedback is welcome (that is civil and respectful).

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • James Petticrew

    This was excellent, be interesting to hear the reaction to it

  • Jeff

    It was a good article. I think the only hitback you will get of any significance might be your interpretation of Romans 7. The growing consensus is to see the use of the “I” as a rhetorical device like Paul uses it in I Corinthians 13 and Epictetus, a Greek philosopher uses it. Gary Shogren, on his website explains this interpretation as does Luke Timothy Johnson in his Romans commentary. Shogren says, ” The caricature of the Wretched Man gave Paul a dramatic structure through which he could portray both the impolitic truth about Judaism and the universality of the gospel.”

    Paul is trying to show why the power of sin is the law. He does this using a common rhetorical device. Otherwise what is the connection between the “I” portion and the portion right before that which says that the law is binding only during one’s lifetime in marriage as an analogy to the Law?

    Again from Shogren – “In a moment of panicked awareness the Man exclaims, “I am…sold into
    slavery under sin. I’m an apostate in God’s eyes and the accepted path of deliverance (study of the Law) only underscores my bondage!” The Wretched Man is a reductio ad absurdum of any system that hinges on a good impulse as a way of escape.”

  • John I.

    I like it and think it’s great. Before commenting more thoughtfully I’ll have to reflect on it a bit more and reread it a few more times. My inital, unreflective thoughts are as follows. Firstly, I really enjoyed the emphasis on real freedom in Christ. I thought the distincition between 3 kinds of freedom was great. I learned from the article, not only content but also a way of presenting it. Personally, I would have made it clear that not only Luther but also Calvinists don’t believe in “freewill”. I would also have clarified that Calvinists also call their view “freewill” but that there is an insurmountable difference between the two definitions of freewill. However, I’m not the writer, I don’t know what the writer was asked to do, and I don’t know the intended audience.

    • rogereolson

      I was not supposed to get into the depths of theological differences or slam any branch of Christianity. But I was encouraged to let my own orientation show.

  • David

    Great article! Lot’s of food for thought. It will indeed be interesting to see the reaction to it.

  • Calvin, of course, did believe in Christian liberty, and devoted a chapter to it in The Institutes (Book III, Chapter XIX). I think he would have been largely in agreement with you on that aspect of it.
    As for free will, here is what Calvin had to say, in part, on Phil. 2:12,13: “It is God who calls us and offers us salvation; it is our part to embrace by faith what He gives, and by obedience to respond to His calling. But we have neither from ourselves. Hence we act only when He has prepared us for acting.” (comm. ad loc.)
    Actually, I’m not sure I understand either Calvin or Dr. Olson on this, or Paul for that matter! We are conscious of having the power to choose, yet we also believe in divine providence. Where does the one begin and the other leave off? It’s a mystery to me!

  • Bev Mitchell

    @Bob Wheeler

    Interesting comparison, but the key disagreement between the two positions (from the perspective you highlight) seems to be one of timing. Calvin seems to have thought that God’s enabling was an on again off again kind of thing. The water hose example in Dr. Olson’s article gives the other view – God’s enabling is definitely not on then off (or offered only to some). The Holy Spirit is always at work, everywhere and every when. The on again off again business, which is very real, comes entirely from us.

    • rogereolson

      Just to clarify: my water hose illustration is about sanctification

      • Bev Mitchell


        I realize that I stretched the metaphor a bit, but do think it also fits as an illustration of prevenient grace. The Holy Spirit is the source and agent of prevenient grace, and as with sanctification, this grace is always standing ready, even pursuing us. While we say “no” and while we say “yes” the Spirit is always saying “come”.

        From what I can gather, how to describe the constancy of grace, the universality of the work of the Spirit, is an important difference between Calvinism and Arminianism. Using the water hose metaphor, Arminianism sees the pressure as always on. Consistent Calvinism sees it as not always on, and never on all over town. The latter tries to box the Holy Spirit in, the former sees him as uncontainable and free – even ineffable.

        To return to your theme of freedom, it seems that, in Calvinism, both our freedom and God’s freedom are unduly limited, constrained, boxed in. Unkinking the hose sometimes won’t get you water. In fact, unkinking the hose and opening the valve are seen as semi-Pelagian works. We have to wait for God to do these things, and, being Sovereign, he may not.

        In short, your fine metaphor has legs. As with all metaphors, we can push too far – but this one can go a good distance before it begins to lisp. 🙂

        • rogereolson

          So you are interpreting the illustration for use as an analogy to prevenient grace? I can see that, too. But it might need some tweaking to work for that. Let me think about it some more. (In the past I have used the analogy of a deep hole, like a well, into which we have fallen and prevenient grace as the water God pours down the hole to lift us out if we let it.)

  • Brother Roger,

    That article really blessed me. Thank you for writing such a clear and practical piece of theological teaching.

    My favorite quotes from the article are these:

    “No truth is more pervasive in Scripture and Christian tradition than this one – that real freedom is found in obedience and servanthood”

    “Loss of true freedom comes with self-assertion, the idolatrous desire to rule my own square inch of hell rather than enjoy the blessings of God’s favor”

    “Gospel obedience is always voluntary”

    “Free will is simply a God-given capacity for choosing the true freedom offered by God’s grace, or else rejecting it through our own self-centered obstinacy”

    In regards to the specific question you asked I would respond with a resounding “yes!” I’m sure grateful for that. I once sat in John MacArthur’s church and heard him in person say from his pulpit that the reason many Christians (Arminians, of course) do not like Calvinism is because we love our freedom too much and have an Americanized way of interpreting Scripture. While there is some truth to what he said – your article makes similar points – it was very annoying for me as an Arminian to here the accusation that the reason I reject Calvinism is because I worship my freedom and don’t like the idea of submitting to a monarch. That was simply unfair.

    Furthermore, men of God like John Piper usually speak about Christians finding freedom in the pleasure of God Himself. Consequently, it is the Calvinists who usually have the reputation of being the ones who interpret freedom the way you do in your article. It’s a relief to see a this type of “I’m most free when I am most bound to God and others” assertion come from the pen of an Arminian like yourself.

    I only wish the article was longer so that you could dive into other themes you mentioned in the article. For example: you wrote “There is no lack of grace or need for grace boosters” and I understand what you mean. However, there is a profound mystery in that statement. James 4:6 does say “[God] gives us more grace…” I wonder what more grace means and how that relates to my works of righteousness. I don’t know the exact answer but articles like your open the door for those types of musings.

    Side note: as I read your article I thought about James 1:25 calling God’s word “the perfect law of liberty”. It’s amazing how the word “law” still shows up as a legitimate factor in the Christian’s life yet the word “law” is accompanied by the word “freedom”. I think your article has given me some thoughts that I can connect with that passage in James.

    Thanks for the food for thought! I love Jesus and I appreciate anything that draws me close to Him.

    David Martinez

  • Quartermaster

    Frankly, I seriously doubt you can give Calvinists enough to see the error of their ways. They remind me much of the current crop of Evangelical Atheists (Dawkins, et. al.) for whom there will never be enough evidence for creation and the existence of God.

    I first read Calvin’s Institutes about 30 years ago. Sine then I have regarded Calvinists as Christians whose Soteriology and Theology Proper are aberrant. I can still see no other conclusion I can draw from Calvin’s or their writings.

    • Unfortunately, I think you are right. The many conversations I had with some of my friends and colleagues (who are what I would call hyper-calvinists, and who would more often than not start the conversations) most of the time, even if it is a lovingly “as they can,” simply dismiss my arguments as “not really biblical.”