“Arminianism Is Grace-centered Christian Theology”
Roger E. Olson
The Martin McCullough Lecture
First Baptist Church of Murfreesboro, Tennessee
September 10, 2017
The first Baptists, led by English Independent, Separatist, Congregationalist pastors John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, beginning around 1610, were later known as “General Baptists.” This was to contrast them with a different tribe of early Baptists known as “Particular Baptists” who arose in England around 1640. Eventually these two British tribes of Baptists wrote two different statements of faith. The General Baptists wrote the “Orthodox Creed” in 1679 partly, at least, as an alternative to the Particular Baptists’ “London Confession of Faith” written in 1646. Then, in 1689 the Particular Baptists responded to the Orthodox Creed with a “Second London Baptist Confession of Faith.” Throughout the seventeenth century and, really ever since, Baptists have been divided into two camps or tribes—General and Particular. Of course there are other issues of biblical interpretation, theology, and practice that divide Baptists. In the United States alone there are, among Baptists, as with Heinz ketchup, approximately “57 varieties.”
Historically, however, there have been two major fault lines, “continental divides,” separating Baptists from each other even when, in some Baptist denominations and churches, they have found themselves able to coexist peacefully. Usually that peaceful coexistence is made possible by a kind of “gentlemen’s agreement” to avoid the subjects that divide, in order to avoid physical division, and/or by an embrace of sheer contradiction under the guise of “paradox.” I will return to that later and attempt to show why it is really not a viable option.
What are these two major fault lines or “continental divides” that have historically separated Baptists from each other? The first one I alluded to at the beginning of this talk. General Baptists, including founders Smyth and Helwys, believe that Christ died for all people, not securing their salvation, which would mean universalism, but making salvation truly available to all people. The General Baptists then and ever since, also known as “Free Will Baptists,” have also emphasized that God, through the gospel, gives hearers of the Word the ability freely to respond to God’s invitation to salvation through repentance and faith. So the “General” in “General Baptist” meant and means that God’s offer of salvation through Christ is for all people without exception. The key verse for General Baptists is 2 Peter 3:9 which says that God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (This message is found also in 1 Timothy 2:4.)
On the other side of this first fault line or continental divide between Baptists, from near the beginning, stands the Particular Baptists, under whatever label, who believe that God sovereignly chooses to save some sinners, the “elect,” for whom alone Christ died, and calls and draws them irresistibly into repentance and faith. The “particular” in Particular Baptist refers to the belief that Christ died only for particular people, the elect, chosen by God, and not for everyone. Over time the adjective “particular” has dropped away almost entirely and these Baptists have adopted the labels “Reformed” and “Calvinist.” Similarly, over time, General Baptists have mostly dropped the label “General” and adopted the labels “Free Will” and “Arminian.” The vast majority of Baptists in the United States have chosen to avoid these labels but this has done little to stop the disagreement from “popping up” among Baptists from time to time. We live in a time when this disagreement has once again become a cause of division, not only among Baptists but perhaps especially among Baptists.
You might be wondering what the second major fault line or continental divide among Baptists might be. Others name and describe something different, but I will say the second one is “liberal” versus “conservative” or “progressive” versus “evangelical.” There are degrees and varieties among these two tribes or types of Baptists, but, in my opinion, based on years of studying Baptist theology, the line of division here has to do with attitudes towards the relative authorities of the Bible and contemporary culture. Liberal, progressive Baptists began in the late nineteenth century and continued throughout the twentieth and twenty-first century to adopt the attitude that secular culture, “modernity,” is an authority for Christian belief alongside of, if not equal with, the Bible. Conservative, evangelical Baptists, have always held that the Bible is our ultimate, final authority for all matters of Christian faith and practice—even when that means taking a skeptical approach to modernity and even separating from secular culture and liberal, progressive Christians. Picture this divide not as two monolithic groups; picture it instead as a spectrum. At one end are the extreme liberal or progressive Baptists who are hardly distinguishable from Unitarians. You will find those mostly among the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., the old Northern Baptist Convention, but also, increasingly, among Baptists in the South who run as far and as fast as possible away from fundamentalism.
At the other end of the spectrum are the true fundamentalists, those Baptists (and others) who over reacted to the rise of modernity and liberal thought among Protestants in America and pronounced the “inerrancy of the Bible” the true litmus test of orthodox Christianity. For the most part these fundamentalist Baptists elevated secondary beliefs such as “young earth creationism” and “rapture eschatology” to the status of dogmas, essentials of authentic Christianity.
So this fault line, continental divide, among Baptists is a spectrum with many degrees. Many of us have come to describe our stance and approach to this controversy as “moderate.” Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, however, even “moderate” is becoming an essentially contested identity and label with both progressives and conservatives using it. I, however, do not go by labels; I look to Baptists’ attitudes towards Christ and Scripture, salvation and the supernatural. Liberal-leaning, progressive Baptists tend to redefine these concepts to make them fit with modern and post-modern culture; they tend to regard Christianity as endlessly flexible in terms of doctrine and reduce the essence of Christianity to ethics, especially peace and justice. Conservative-leaning, truly moderate Baptists hold fast to traditional Christian beliefs about Christ, as God incarnate, Scripture as supernaturally inspired and authoritative, salvation as a work of the Holy Spirit that cannot be reduced to “turning over a new leaf,” and the supernatural as God’s invasion of history and people’s lives in ways science cannot explain.
Now, some of my listeners who are knowledgeable about many other fault lines that separate Baptists will have to be patient with me as I argue that these are the two major ones. All others are secondary. Worship styles divide Baptists, yes and to be sure, but they are not as important overall as the two I have talked about so far. And we could talk about others such as whether Baptist churches should have elders, whether Baptists should use modern translations of the Bible, etc., etc., etc. But I truly think these are secondary to the two I mentioned earlier.
In other words, when I look for a Baptist church to join, I care much less about what translation of the Bible it uses and what style of worship it prefers than about whether it generally believes that God’s saving grace is for all people and whether it holds the Bible to be the supernaturally inspired and authoritative Word of God above and not alongside of secular culture.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.
Now I will move on by going back to that first fault line, that first continental divide among Baptists and say that it has always existed among Protestants, not only among Baptists. Return with me to the first century of Baptist life when, in England especially, Baptists found themselves so strongly in disagreement about God’s sovereignty and humanity’s free will that they had to write two radically different doctrinal statements and break off fellowship with each other.
The Particular Baptists evolved out of Separatist Puritanism; they were radical Puritans who believed the Church of England was hopelessly corrupt in keeping too many features of Roman Catholicism. These radical Puritans rejected the Anglican church and also the Presbyterian alternative and embraced Congregationalism—the idea that church and state should be separate and that each Christian congregation should govern its own affairs. Particular Baptists were those Congregationalist Puritans who then went the “next step” and rejected infant baptism and began “re-baptizing” converted sinners and refusing to practice or recognize infant baptism entirely. But their background was in Puritan Calvinism and as they became Baptists they kept that aspect of Puritanism—belief that God has sovereignly chosen some sinners to save and others to leave to their deserved damnation without any real opportunity to be saved. Some of them even went so far as to reject missions entirely, viewing it as usurping God’s sovereign prerogative to save whomever he will. These Particular Baptists’ key biblical passage was Romans 9:18 which says that God will have mercy on whom he wills and he will harden whom he wills.
The General Baptists, on the other hand, were more influenced by Mennonites in the Netherlands than by English Puritanism. Mennonites were already well established in the Netherlands, then known as the United Provinces with Holland as the largest and most influential one among the Dutch, when Smyth and Helwys took their congregations there in 1609 and 1610. Also, a controversy was raging in the Netherlands around a Dutch Reformed minister and theologian named Jacob Arminius and his followers, known as the “Remonstrants.” Both the Mennonites and the Remonstrants rejected Calvinism; they believed that Christ died for all people, not just some “elect” group chosen by God without regard to their freely chosen faith. They also believed that God genuinely wants all people to be saved and that if someone is not saved it is because they have freely resisted God’s will and if someone is saved it is because they have freely repented and trusted in Christ alone for salvation.
Smyth and Helwys and the General Baptists in general agreed with the Mennonites and Remonstrants; they adopted Arminian theology and rejected Calvinism. When they and their congregations returned to England from the Netherlands they came into contact with the Particular, Calvinist Baptists and the Great Divide between these two tribes of Baptists began. Over the centuries of Baptist history—and this could be said of other Protestant groups as well—the great divide between Calvinism and Arminianism has waxed and waned in importance—even where these labels are not used or even known. Many, perhaps most, Baptists who care about these matters call themselves “Calminians” in order to deflect debate and avoid division. The idea of “Calminianism” is to combine Calvinism and Arminianism.
In fact, I would say this unstable compound of Calvinism and Arminianism, a paradoxical and even illogical combination of the two doctrinal positions regarding God’s sovereignty and salvation, became the settled position of the majority of Baptists for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Especially as the second fault line or continental divide consumed attention among Baptists from the late nineteenth century until now the first one, between Calvinism and Arminianism, between Particular Baptists and General Baptists, faded into the background. Until recently, that is.
Beginning in the 1980s and gaining steam throughout the 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century Calvinism made a major “comeback” among Baptists and other conservative Protestants. And, in some cases, this “comeback” has been aggressive. I first began to hear about it when I was teaching theology at a Baptist college and seminary in Minnesota. Many of my students were attending a Baptist church in downtown Minneapolis pastored by a passionate Calvinist biblical scholar and theologian who also happened to be an extremely articulate speaker. Then a new evangelical magazine took the place of the defunct Eternity—a generically evangelical monthly on which I “cut my teeth” as a young theologian. Eternity, which was published out of Tenth Avenue Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, founded by that church’s pastor Donald Gray Barnhouse, an extremely influential evangelical biblical scholar, author and radio preacher, was replaced by Modern Reformation. Its first issue was a full frontal attack on Arminianism. Then came the Southern Baptist “Founders Ministries” attempting to influence the whole Southern Baptist Convention toward Calvinism. Then came the “Passion Conferences” attended by thousands of mostly Baptist young people who heard Calvinist Baptist preacher John Piper speak for Calvinism and against Arminianism.
All that is to say that Calvinism has enjoyed a great resurgence around the world in the past several years. So much so that Time magazine included “The New Calvinism” as one of “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now” in the cover story of its Annual Special Issue published March 23, 2009. Along with this resurgence of Calvinism, including of Particular Baptist theology among Baptists, has come a trouncing of Arminianism as near heresy if not outright heresy. A popular video on Youtube features conservative Calvinist theologians and biblical scholars drawing a straight line from Arminius and Arminianism to contemporary debauched hedonism including two female pop stars kissing on stage at a rock concert and shouting against “right and wrong.”
The most common serious theological charge against Arminianism and Arminian theology, the theology of the earliest Baptists, among others, is that it amounts to the heresy of “semi-Pelagianism.” Some uninformed or dishonest Calvinist critics of Arminianism go so far as to accuse it of outright Pelagianism, but most know better and settle for “semi-Pelagianism.” Many of them call Arminian theology “man-centered theology” and “salvation by works.” Many Calvinists, going back more than a century to English Baptist preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, call Calvinism “the doctrines of grace” and allege that Arminianism, which was the theology also embraced by John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodist movement, is a betrayal of salvation by grace alone.
Today, as of 2017, the whole Southern Baptist Convention, like smaller Protestant denominations, is being rocked by this controversy. Although the leading proponents of both theologies do their best to play nice in public, they are working hard “behind the scenes” to advance their own views among Southern Baptists. But this is not only a controversy among Baptists; even the once solidly Arminian Assemblies of God is experiencing a surge of interest in Calvinism especially among its youth. All across the United States and even in Brazil, this debate over God’s sovereignty and human free will in salvation is being played out in churches, denominations, colleges, universities, seminaries and parachurch organizations.
Now please bear with me as I back up and talk about some background issues and some definitions of terms. I’ll be as concise as possible, but please consider reading my book Against Calvinism and its companion volume For Calvinism by my Reformed friend Michael Horton who teaches theology at mostly Calvinist Westminster Theological Seminary. Only then will you really understand this long-standing and resurgent fault line, continental divide, in any depth. Both books are published by Zondervan, a Grand Rapids-based Christian publishing house. Both are easy to read and digest—even if you have no theological training or knowledge.
“Calvinism” is simply a word we use for a belief system that pre-dates Protestant reformer John Calvin of Geneva by at least a millennium. A thousand years before Calvin North African bishop and church father Augustine published his book On the Predestination of the Saints in which he argued that God has decided from eternity which sinners will be saved and that this selection was made unconditionally, not based on God’s foreknowledge of their faith, and that saving grace is given to them irresistibly by God. Calvin simply took over Augustine’s theology and gave it a Protestant face; emphasizing that salvation is by grace “through faith alone” and without works. Augustine, as a good Catholic, believed good works, “works of love,” are necessary for full and final salvation. After Calvin some of his followers picked up where he left off and developed a highly rational and speculative theology of salvation that has come to be labeled “Calvinism” even though Calvin himself did not teach all of it.
Calvinism is usually described using the acronym “TULIP” which is amusing because the Netherlands became its fertile breeding ground and that country is known, of course, for its tulips. The “T” stands for “total depravity”—the idea that all people are born so sinfully corrupt that they are incapable of repenting and trusting in God apart from God’s sovereign and irresistible grace. The “U” stands for “unconditional election”—the idea that God has chosen some sinners, nobody knows exactly how many, to save without any regard to anything God sees in them. The “L” stands for “limited atonement”—the idea that Christ died only for the elect and not for the “reprobate”—those God chooses to “pass over” and not save. The “I” stands for “irresistible grace”—the idea that God draws the elect irresistibly to himself by giving them the gift of faith even before they repent and believe. In other words, according to Calvinists, the elect are “born again” before they know it; otherwise they would never repent and believe because they are “totally depraved.” The “P” stands for “perseverance of the saints”—the idea that the elect will never fall entirely away and lose their salvation even if they “backslide” for a time. Historically speaking, many Baptists who are not full-blown Calvinists have held onto the “P,” calling it “the security of the saints” or “eternal security,” even as they reject especially the “U,” the “L,” and the “I.” Some Baptists call themselves “Four Point Calvinists” which means they accept all of TULIP except the “L.” That is, they believe Christ died even for the non-elect.
So where in the Bible do Calvinists find support for their belief in “double predestination,” which is implied even when some Calvinists prefer to all it “single predestination?” The standard locus classicus or classical passage appealed to is Romans 9. A cursory reading of Romans 9, taken out of its wider context which includes chapters 10 and 11, can give that impression. However, it’s interesting that no Christian before Augustine in the early fifth century interpreted Romans 9 as teaching what we today call “Calvinism.”
Aggressive Calvinists argue that Calvinism is the only belief system about God’s sovereignty and salvation that secures the gospel; it is, they say, “a transcript of the gospel.” Any departure from it opens the door to salvation by works instead of salvation by grace alone. One argument we often hear from Calvinists is that Arminianism is barely disguised salvation by works, Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, because it believes, so they say, that the sinner’s free response of faith to the gospel is “the decisive factor” in his or her salvation.
Now I will turn to true Arminianism which is not the caricature of Arminianism one finds in almost all the sermons and podcasts and Youtube videos and books of the Calvinists.
“Arminianism” is simply the word theologians use for any Protestant belief that God gives sinners who hear the gospel the ability freely to choose whether to repent and believe, have faith, or not. Calvinists have promoted many myths about Arminianism and I have corrected them in my book Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities published by InterVarsity Press. There I quote much from Jacob Arminius himself and from his faithful followers, the evangelical Remonstrants, General Baptists, Methodists and many other Protestants who do not embrace Calvinism’s TULIP system.
Like “Calvinism,” however, “Arminianism” as a belief system predates Jacob Arminius by many years. In fact, evangelical Methodist theologian Thomas Oden argued in his fine book The Transforming Power of Grace (Abingdon) that essential Arminianism was the theology of the earliest church fathers before Augustine. The essential ideas of Arminian theology about God’s self-limiting sovereignty, universal atonement, grace-enabled free will, are found in the so-called Radical Reformers, especially the Swiss Brethren and Mennonites or Anabaptists. Admittedly, however, Martin Luther and John Calvin, together with most of the so-called “magisterial Protestant reformers,” embraced Augustine’s theology of salvation called “monergism”—the idea that God alone acts in salvation and that sinners being saved are passive recipients of grace whose faith is a gift they cannot refuse. The Anabaptists, Mennonites and others who are the true ancestors of Baptists, embraced “synergism”—the idea that salvation is initiated by God, made possible by God, given as a gift by God, but that sinners who hear the gospel are free either to accept or reject saving grace.
What is the biblical support for this Arminian view of salvation? Arminians point to passages such as John 3:16 and the earlier mentioned verses in 1 Timothy and 2 Peter to support their belief that God really wants all people to be saved and has made salvation available to all through the death of his Son Jesus Christ. But some Arminians, such as Jacob Arminius himself, also argue that Calvinism violates the loving and good character of God by making him arbitrary and narcissistic—caring more about his own glory demonstrated in saving some and rejecting others than about keeping sinners out of hell. In fact, many, if not most, Calvinists, like Puritan preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, have admitted that they believe hell is necessary for the full revelation of God’s attribute of justice. According to Arminians, anyway, Calvinism has always placed God’s love “on the back burner,” so to speak. As one famous and influential Calvinist named J. I. Packer admitted, according to Calvinism God loves all people in some ways but only some people—the elect—in all ways. Arminians find it difficult to see how God loves those who he has decided to “pass over” as he elects some to salvation unconditionally and saves them irresistibly. The question arises naturally: Why does this God not elect all people and save all people if election is unconditional and salvation irresistible? The only answer is that this would undermine his purpose which is to glorify himself by manifesting all his attributes including his justice.
The Netherlands, or United Provinces as it was then known, became the scene of the most vicious and violent outbreak of this fault line, this continental divide, this controversy over God’s sovereignty and salvation. In the first decade of the seventeenth century Reformed minister and theologian Jacob Arminius dared to challenged TULIP Calvinism which was fast becoming the standard orthodoxy of the Dutch Reformed churches. He accepted total depravity but argued that God heals sinners’ inability to freely respond to the gospel. He called this “prevenient grace”—the grace that “goes before” saving grace. It is, he preached and taught, a work of the Holy Spirit alluded to in John’s gospel where Jesus said that if he be lifted up he will draw all people to himself. Prevenient grace, Arminius argued, is necessary because, left to themselves, without the Holy Spirit’s convicting, calling, illuminating and enabling power, sinners would never repent or believe in Christ. That is conversion would be impossible for them. So he accepted the “T” of TULIP but added prevenient grace to avoid Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism both of which are ancient heresies that deny total depravity.
Arminius absolutely rejected unconditional election and preached and taught that God elects unto salvation all he foreknows will repent and believe. He also rejected limited atonement and preached and taught that Christ provided atonement for all people—even those he foreknew would reject him. And he rejected irresistible grace and preached and taught that grace is resistible because God is sovereign over his own sovereignty and allows sinners to reject the gospel and God’s offer of salvation. Finally, he never decided about perseverance; he said the Bible seems to offer grounds for both views—that the saved can never become “unsaved” and that salvation can be lost by unbelief.
“Arminianism,” then, is simply a term we use in theology for the view, held by some people before Arminius and many after him, that sinners who hear the gospel have the free will to accept or reject God’s offer of saving grace and that nobody is excluded by God from the possibility of salvation except those who freely exclude themselves. But true, historical, classical Arminianism includes the belief that this free will is itself a gift of God through prevenient grace; it is not a natural ability every person has of himself or herself. All people have free will to do many things, but free will to repent and believe unto salvation is always a gift of God’s grace.
Now let me bore down a bit deeper into this controversy. Calvinists often respond to Arminianism this way: Even with the doctrine of prevenient grace Arminianism still and nevertheless amounts to salvation by human merit rather than by God’s grace alone. Why? Because that free decision, even if made possible by prevenient grace, is, in Arminian theology, “the decisive factor” in the person’s salvation. According to Arminianism’s Calvinist critics, then, Arminianism is not a doctrine of grace but of good works because it makes the sinner’s free decision the basis of his or her salvation—rather than making God’s sovereign will, power and mercy the sole basis of his or her salvation.
The gospel, in a nutshell, is expressed in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For it is by grace you have been saved through faith and it is not of works lest anyone should boast.” Calvinists argue that if Arminianism is true, the saved sinner can turn around and boast of his or her “contribution” to salvation with his or her free decision to repent and believe. They argue that only if Calvinism is true can nobody ever boast because God does everything in salvation, the sinner contributes nothing, not even a free decision to repent and believe. According to Calvinism, even the free decision is not really free; it is imposed on the sinner, who is elect, by the Holy Spirit without the elect sinner’s consent.
Arminius knew all about this crucial argument; he heard it from his Calvinist colleagues in the Dutch Reformed churches and in their seminaries where he also taught theology. He responded, as all Arminians have after him, by pointing out that a gift received is still a gift even if it is received freely and could have been rejected. Imagine, if you will, Arminius said, a beggar who is given a gift of money that saves him from starvation. He freely receives the money, buys some food with it, and does not starve. Now imagine further than he then goes about boasting that he “contributed” to his being saved from starvation by freely accepting the gift of money. Who would believe him or sympathize with his boast? Who would agree that he “merited” the gift merely by accepting it?
I happen to agree with Arminius and those following him who have, I judge, successfully turned that Calvinist argument aside. I think Ephesians 2:8-9 is completely consistent with Arminian theology especially when it bases the free acceptance of God’s saving grace on prevenient grace and not on a natural ability—as true Arminianism always does.
You might be wondering about “the rest of the story,” so let me offer a sidebar mini-lecture in historical theology. Arminius was accused of heresy by some leaders of the Dutch Reformed churches but died of tuberculosis at the height of the controversy in 1609. His followers within the Dutch Reformed churches were known as the “Remonstrants” which is really just another way of saying “Protestants.” They protested the TULIP Calvinism that was then taking over in the Dutch Reformed churches. In 1618 and 1619 the state church of the Netherlands held a “synod” or convention called the Synod of Dort at which the Remonstrants were condemned as heretics and exiled from the Netherlands. Some were imprisoned and one was even executed. By most accounts it was a kangaroo court governed by the Calvinist prince of the country. When he died the Remonstrants returned to the Netherlands and founded a seminary and a denomination that still exist. Ironically, the Remonstrant Brotherhood, as it is known, is a charter member of the World Communion of Reformed Churches.
Arminian theology spread around the Protestant world through the General Baptists, the Methodists, Anabaptists, Brethren, Churches of Christ and Independent Christians, Holiness and Pentecostals. During the Second Great Awakening of the early part of the nineteenth century and through later revivals many Baptists who earlier leaned toward Calvinism adopted Arminianism without calling it that. In the South, especially, for whatever historical-theological reasons, Southern Baptists came to equate being “Arminian” with believing salvation can be lost. Since most Southern Baptists held onto that one point of TULIP Calvinism, even when they rejected the other points, they shied away from using the label “Arminian” and still do—for the most part. I find it ironic that many Southern Baptists who I consider Arminians because of their rejection of the “U,” the “L,” and the “I” of the TULIP system adamantly refuse to use the label “Arminian” for themselves. But that’s okay; I still consider them Arminian and consider that a compliment even if they don’t.
Throughout this recent great debate of God’s sovereignty and salvation between Calvinists and Arminians (or just non-Calvinists) I have insisted that the real, underlying issue is not “free will” but God’s character. Arminius himself said that he would gladly attribute everything spiritually good to God’s grace alone, but he would not attribute reprobation—the reality that some are not saved—to God’s will. Yes, he would attribute it to God’s permission, but not to God’s perfect will or plan.
If I were a Calvinist I would not be able to consider God perfectly good and loving; I would have to consider God great and powerful and perhaps glorious, but not good and kind and merciful. Of course, I know that my Calvinist friends say that they, too, believe God is good and loving and kind and merciful, but only towards the elect. To me, that’s not enough. “For God so loved the world….” Calvinists say “the world” in John 3:16 refers to “people of all kinds,” not everyone. I cannot agree with that interpretation. But the issue here goes deeper than exegesis of Bible passages; it goes down to the level of belief about God’s character. What kind of God is the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ? He is the kind of God who weeps—as Jesus wept over Jerusalem—when people reject his mercy. He is not the kind of God who foreordains, predestines, some to hell. One Calvinist theologian dared to say what all Calvinists should dare to say: “Those who find themselves suffering in the flames of hell for eternity can at least take comfort in the fact that they are there for the greater glory of God.” That is not a God I could worship; that is a God hardly distinguishable from the devil. And therein lies the real problem with Calvinism.
I admit that both Calvinism and Arminianism can find support in large swaths of Scripture. I do not say that Calvinism is fundamentally unbiblical—as many Calvinists say about Arminianism. I cannot disprove Calvinism from the Bible because every verse I mention they have interpreted through their own Calvinist lens. For example, they say 2 Peter 3:9, quoted earlier, only means that God is not willing that any of the elect perish. Also, Arminians can and do interpret every passage Calvinist use as support for their view differently. Romans 9, for example, does not refer to double predestination of individuals to salvation or damnation but to God’s generous plan to include gentiles together with Jews in his covenant love. And when Calvinists point to Ephesians 1 and its many references to God’s elect people Arminians, rightly I believe, interpret that as referring to groups of people, not predestined individuals. In other words, Israel and the church are the “elect” but God does not decide which individuals will be among them without consideration of their faith.
So if neither Calvinism nor Arminianism can be proven or disproven from Scripture, how can one decide? Why am I an Arminian? Simply put, Arminianism does greater justice to God’s good, loving and holy character than Calvinism. Also, if Calvinism is true, our fellowship with God is a condition imposed on us rather than a freely chosen relationship. It’s like an arranged marriage whereas I believe what God wants is our free and uncoerced love and fellowship. So this is where theology comes into play; it looks at the “big picture” of Scripture and at the “little picture” that makes all the difference. The “big picture” is God’s covenant-seeking love; the “little picture” that makes all the difference is Jesus Christ who is the perfect revelation of God.
So now, bear with me as I finish this lecture by answering a few questions that I am often asked—about this controversy and debate.
First, if God wants all people without exception to be saved, why aren’t they? The Arminian answer is that God restricts his power to give us the deciding power whether to have a loving relationship with him or not. I think we have to make a distinction between two wills of God—God’s “antecedent will” and God’s “consequent will.” Antecedently to our rebellion and disobedience God wants everyone to be saved; consequent to our rebellion and disobedience God wills to permit us to decide whether to repent and turn to him with faith or not. In Arminian theology God is sovereign over his own sovereignty; he restricts his power and condescends to allow us to thwart his perfect, antecedent will because the only alternative would be to have robots instead of loving children and friends.
Second, how can salvation be all of grace through faith alone, not of works, if we decide to be saved? Isn’t that decision itself a “good work” that merits salvation, thus undermining the graciousness of salvation? I already addressed that, but I’ll repeat that Arminianism is a theology of grace because it teaches that no person could or would ever turn to God in repentance and faith apart from God’s empowering and freeing grace. Through the gospel God liberates the will from its bondage to sin, to pride and self-centeredness, and gives the sinner the ability to see himself or herself as God sees him or her and know God as merciful and willing to save. It gives the sinner the freedom to say “yes” to God’s offer of saving grace, to accept the gift of God’s mercy and forgiveness. That is not a “good work” in the sense of merit; it is merely accepting a gift.
Third, isn’t Arminianism “humanistic” and “man-centered?” No, not at all. True, classical Arminian theology is God-centered. God gets all the glory and man gets none. But unlike Calvinism, Arminianism unites God’s glory with God’s love; it shows that God’s love is God’s glory. God is glorious because he is loving. Calvinism equates God’s glory with his power. Naked power is not truly glorious or worshipful. Only power united with love is glorious and worshipful.
Fourth, can’t Calvinism and Arminianism be united? Can’t there be a hybrid, a middle ground, a bridge between them? Can’t a person be both at the same time? No, that’s simply not possible. At certain crucial points they are absolutely opposite and any attempt to unite them requires an absurd leap into logical contradiction. Election of individuals to salvation is either conditional or unconditional; it can’t be both. Christ’s atoning death on the cross is either intended by God to be for all people or it is intended by God to be only for some; it can’t be both. Saving grace is either resistible or irresistible; it can’t be both at the same time. On these points, at least, one must choose between Calvinism and Arminianism or, if one wants to avoid those labels, one must choose between monergism and synergism.
I argue that classical, historical Arminianism is the middle ground people are looking for! It is the middle ground between Calvinism and Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism. The latter two views deny sinners’ helplessness and teach that we humans are morally and spiritually able even in our fallen condition to initiate our own salvation. Calvinism teaches that sinners are not only helpless but passive in the event of salvation; that they are mere pawns or robots being acted upon by God without any consent or cooperation on their part. Arminianism is the middle ground that says sinners are helpless but not passive in the event of salvation. The key doctrine that makes all the difference is prevenient grace.
Fifth and finally, people ask whether Calvinists and Arminians can embrace as equally Christian and worship together and cooperate in Christian work and witness without rancor or feelings of superiority. I argue that they can and do, but it is difficult for a single congregation to include both. It can happen and I have seen it happen, but I worry that it only happens because the pastors avoid the subject of God’s sovereignty and our free will in salvation, the subject of God’s electing grace and our freedom to choose, entirely. Insofar as a church cares about theology, which I believe it should, it will tend to be either Calvinistic or Arminian in its theology of God’s sovereignty and salvation.
Of course, if a church adopts the modernist, liberal, progressive approach to modern Christianity, it will tend to avoid the whole subject of Calvinism versus Arminianism by adopting universalism of salvation—which is simply Calvinism without the “double” before predestination. But that’s a whole other subject for which I do not have time here and now.
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