Where Calvinists and Arminians Agree: Everything Good Is Gift
I swear this is the truth: If it weren’t for an avalanche of unfair attacks on and misrepresentations of Arminian theology by Calvinists during the 1990s I would never have set out on my crusade to defend Arminianism and expose the problems of Calvinism. It all began the day a student came to my office and informed me that I’m not a Christian. When I asked him how he thought he knew that he said “Because you’re Arminian.” I knew he was a dedicated follower of a leading Calvinist pastor and he attributed his claim that Arminians are not Christians to him. Soon after that I picked up the first issue of Modern Reformation magazine, in some ways the successor to one of my favorite Christian periodicals—Eternity. The entire issue was against Arminianism and contained numerous misrepresentations of my theology and claims that one can no more be an “evangelical Arminian” than one can be an “evangelical Catholic.” Throughout the 1990s and well into the first decade of the 21st century American evangelical Calvinists kept up a barrage of attacks on Arminians. One leading Calvinist theologian publicly declared Arminians “Christians, just barely.”
The 1990s saw the controversy among evangelicals about “open theism,” “openness of God theology.” Numerous articles appeared declaring it heresy. Campaigns began among pastors of various denominations to have it banned from their schools and to fire teachers at evangelical colleges who taught it. Some Calvinists went so far as to threaten publishers that they would no longer publish with them if they published books by open theists. Because some of my best friends were leading open theists I went to their defense. I also happened to believe two things about open theism and the controversy surrounding it in evangelical circles: 1) It was not a heresy and most of the criticisms of it included distortion and misrepresentation of what open theists actually believe, and 2) Many of the criticisms of open theism published by Calvinists, if true, would also work against Arminianism. A new wave of the old Calvinist assault on Arminianism was rising among evangelicals and I felt that few, if any, evangelical Arminians were stepping up to defend classical Arminian theology. I had a platform, so I used it to defend Arminianism. My article “Don’t hate me because I’m Arminian” appeared in Christianity Today. (I didn’t like that title; it was the creation of CT’s editors.) One insider at CT (no longer there) told me that two theological editors tried to squash the article. Fortunately the editors courageously published it anyway—against the wishes of two leading evangelical Calvinist theologians who advised them.
I was there when the “Young, Restless, Reformed” movement began. During the 1980s and 1990s we called them “Piper Cubs”—students who were flocking to John Piper’s church and devouring his books and quoting him in classes and telling professors they aren’t Christians because they’re not Calvinists. (To the best of my knowledge Piper himself has never said that, but certainly many of his followers gain that impression and come to believe that—especially about dreaded Arminians!) So I wasn’t surprised when it became a national and even international phenomenon.
But through all of this debating with Calvinists and defending Arminianism I have suffered a bad conscience. Don’t get me wrong! I don’t mean bad conscience as in feelings of guilt; I mean I wished it were not so—that I didn’t have to be doing this. In spite of the fact that I abhor high, hard-core Calvinism, the Calvinism of many of the “gurus” of the YYRM, I have always respected leading moderate Calvinist theologians such as Donald Bloesch and Millard Erickson and even G. C. Berkouwer and his American student James Daane. And I even agree (probably) about seventy-five percent with John Piper—about subjects other than God’s sovereignty in relation to sin, evil and innocent suffering.
But when I hear and read Calvinists boldly misrepresenting Arminianism I can’t keep my mouth shut or my pen down. I invited the director of the university’s Reformed University Fellowship to speak to my class about Calvinism. He, a seminary graduate, said “Arminianism is just Pelagianism.” When I insisted that he invite me to speak to his RUF leaders about Arminianism they gathered around me after my talk and said “We have never heard that about Arminianism”—meaning they had been misinformed and misled about what it is. Often when I present Arminian theology to beginning theology students they say “That’s sounds like Calvinism!” Really.
Evangelical Calvinists and evangelical Arminians need to reach an accord, an agreement, to put down the long knives and cooperate with each other in opposing the real “default heresy” of American Christianity—moralism.
I visit churches and listen for the gospel. I’ve begun to agree with Wolfhart Pannenberg who said that when he listens for the gospel in most churches he concludes it is what the preacher should have said but didn’t. The true, biblical, evangelical gospel is difficult to find in American churches or hear from their pulpits. What I hear most of the time, from most pulpits, is moralism: “Here’s what God expects of you, now go and do it” and “Become a better person than you are.” Very rarely do I hear that “You can’t do it without the Holy Spirit changing you.”
Not far from my house is a church that purports to be evangelical. For weeks now the marquee has said simply “Decide to grow.” Decide to grow? What does that mean? Ah, much to my dismay I think I know what it means: “Being a good person, even a good Christian, is totally up to you. Use your will to decide to change and become the person that pleases God.” The missing all-important truth is that no one can do that by themselves, on their own, just using their will power.
“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” End of story, for most American Christians. Do, do, do. Work harder at being a disciple, a good citizen, a church person, a good neighbor, a successful person.
But Philippians 2:12 can no more be taken alone, without 2:13, than 2:13 can be taken alone without 2:12. “For God is at work in you, to will and to do for his good pleasure.” The Greek word translated “work” in 2:12 is not the same translated “work” in 2:13. So it’s not a sheer contradiction or even a paradox (as many have claimed). The message is: “Carry your salvation out to its best possible conclusion in being Christ-like and do it with care knowing all the time that you aren’t really doing it at all because God gives you everything you need to do it and is even the one doing it in you.”
From beginning to end, everything about being a Christian, in more than a merely nominal sense, is gift. All we have to do, all we can do, is receive the gifts—forgiveness, regeneration, justification, sanctification, glorification. At no point in the process does anyone have the right to claim some good accomplished or achieved as his or her own.
The American gospel, however, is that you must use your will power to change and grow. It’s totally up to you—so just “do it.” The vast majority of sermons focus on that message of moralism. “God would be more pleased with you, you would be more pleasing to God, if you exercised your will to change and grow and become a better person than you are.” That’s not the gospel. The gospel is that you can’t do it. As songwriter Jeremy Camp said in a song popularized by Amy Grant: “Being good is just a fable; I just can’t ‘cause I’m not able. Gonna leave it to the Lord”—the “Lord” being the Holy Spirit.
Both Arminians and Calvinists, when they are being true to the gospel and their own traditions, agree that everything anyone achieves that’s good in God’s sight, truly pleasing to him, that brings them into a right relationship with God or grows them in Christlikeness, is exclusively God’s doing in them. Regeneration and sanctification are both entirely and exclusively God’s work in us. We are truly passive in both. Our “work” is only allowing the Holy Spirit to do what we can never do for or in or with ourselves. Being born again and filled with the Spirit are the only means to holiness which is not the same as “being a good person” in most people’s sense of that phrase.
Of course, the danger of “cheap grace” always arises when the gospel is preached or mentioned. But even Bonhoeffer knew that when God calls someone he bids him “come and die.” Dying to self and sin is never easy. But neither is it a mere matter of willing, of “decide to grow.” It involves letting God change you and that can be horribly hard and painful. It is a kind of death.
C. S. Lewis offers a wonderful image of this in The Great Divorce. A traveler from hell to heaven decides he’d like to stay in heaven. An angel tells him that’s possible but only if he allows him, the angel, to remove the monstrous lizard-like creature clinging to his back. The man objects saying that he wouldn’t be himself without it. The angel says he cannot go any further toward the beautiful city or stay there unless he permits the angel to remove the disgusting creature. The man continues to object most strenuously because, he claims, the creature has been part of him so long he wouldn’t know who he was without it. The angel won’t allow him to come any further until he relents. All he has to do is let the angel remove the horrible creature from his back. Finally the man, crushed and sorrowful, agrees. In an instant the creature is removed and killed. The man finds himself wonderfully free and, apparently, in the parable, goes on into heaven. But letting the angel remove the creature, obviously representing his love of sin, is the hardest thing he can ever do and it’s also painful, even a kind of death.
There is no cheap grace in letting go of self and sin and letting God change you. And for most people it’s a lifelong process. But it’s not “deciding to grow.” It’s not moralism or even morality. It’s not “becoming a good or better person.” It’s not even “spiritual formation” as good as that can be. It’s transformation by God’s Spirit.
This is the gospel, folks. But, by and large, we have lost it. For it we have substituted false gospels of morality, prosperity, “success in life,” niceness, effort, churchmanship, citizenship, the “American way.”
Now I’m sure some readers are wondering how this is not Calvinism. Well, it is! It’s also Arminianism! The difference lies in theological explanations of what’s “behind the scenes,” so to speak. Because Arminians insist that God will not regenerate or sanctify a person without his or her free consent and that God’s grace is always resistible, Calvinists dismiss us as moralists, Pelagians, or semi-Pelagians, which is wrong. Because Calvinists insist that God regenerates certain people irresistibly without their free consent Arminians see them as doing damage to the character of God (because he could save everyone that way!) and making salvation more a condition than a relationship. I happen to think that’s correct.
But the point is—evangelical Calvinists and Arminians agree that being a Christian is never a matter of simply deciding to be better and do better and then working harder at it. Neither is it a matter of simply paying lip service to a doctrinal system or mouthing some words about God. It’s a matter of being changed by the Holy Spirit within.