Not one to shy away from important Christian theology, I felt it worthwhile – if not desperately needed – to attempt and offer an explanation to an oftentimes unattractive controversy within Christendom. That is, the Calvinist/Arminian divide. Books have been written on this subject – Dave Hunt’s What Love is This? being my favorite – but I shall attempt to address and summarize this topic within this one article.
To get us started, and without any commentary, the following is offered as working definitions of the two main views.
The basic doctrines of this belief system, formalized by the Synod of Dordt in 1619, are “total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of salvation” (TULIP). Various groups may take a various approach to the five-point model of Calvinism, but the overarching ideas are reasonably consistent and lead to other doctrinal and cultural similarities among Calvinist denominations.
Total depravity, within Calvinist theology, is the belief that humans are inherently sinful from birth and that all human efforts toward improving themselves are basically ineffective. This view is similar to Catholic teachings about original sin but contrasts humanist Christian theological beliefs that humans are able to better themselves. Unconditional election is the view that God elects individuals to be saved based on his own choice rather than on their merits since, according to the doctrine of total depravity, humans do not have merit. Those not predestined for salvation, in most Calvinist views, are predestined for hell.
Limited atonement means that Christ’s atonement covers only the sins of the elect, not of all people. Contrasting theologies, such as Arminianism, may argue that the atonement was on behalf of all people and that a person’s choice to accept or refuse the atonement is what determines whether his or her sins are forgiven. In Calvinist theology, however, a person does not make a choice about whether to be saved but is drawn to salvation by God’s irresistible grace, which is the fourth of the five points of Calvinism.
According to Calvinist theology, because God chooses the elect, he also provides them with strength to persevere in their faith. This doctrine is known as the perseverance of salvation or perseverance of the saints. Those who follow this doctrine believe that a member of the elect cannot lose his or her salvation by turning away from faith, and a person who appears to do so is proved not to have actually been one of the elect.
Calvinist theology is often perceived as a very dark theology due to its emphasis on human depravity and its view that those who are not elect are predestined for hell.
Dutch Arminianism was originally articulated in the Remonstrance (1610), a theological statement signed by 45 ministers and submitted to the Dutch states general. The Synod of Dort (1618–19) was called by the states general to pass upon the Remonstrance. The five points of the Remonstrance asserted that: (1) election (and condemnation on the day of judgment) was conditioned by the rational faith or nonfaith of man; (2) the Atonement, while qualitatively adequate for all men, was efficacious only for the man of faith; (3) unaided by the Holy Spirit, no person is able to respond to God’s will; (4) grace is not irresistible; and (5) believers are able to resist sin but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace. The crux of Remonstrant Arminianism lay in the assertion that human dignity requires an unimpaired freedom of the will.
A Quick Statement
I’m going to resist going through each definition, one by one, and instead offer up what the Scriptures have to say and then conclude with what I believe to be the correct way of looking at this incredibly controversial and intense subject matter.
Biblical Scripture Addressing God’s Sovereignty
The following are Scriptures declaring God’s sovereignty concerning Salvation. (emphasis mine)
“According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will” (Ephesians 1:4-5).
“For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified” (Romans 8:29-30).
“And this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing” (John 6:39a).
“No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him” (John 6:44a).
“And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:46-47).
“And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48).
“In whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his own will: That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in Christ” (Ephesians 1:11-12).
Biblical Scripture Pertaining to Man’s Freewill
The following are Scriptures declaring man’s freewill to come to Christ, along with God’s desire that all men and women be saved. (emphasis mine)
“The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
“And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take of the water of life freely” (Revelation 22:17).
“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the scripture saith, Whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. For there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek: for the same Lord over all is rich unto all that call upon him. For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Romans 10:9-13).
“And He is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
“And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life” (John 5:40).
“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20)
“And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
“And it shall come to pass, that whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21).
“Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (Acts 16:31).
“Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
We even have a short passage that incorporates both God’s sovereign work and man’s freewill regarding salvation. (emphasis mine)
“But as many as received him [man’s freedom of choice in coming to Christ], to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God [God’s work of salvation in bringing man to Himself]” (John 1:12-13).
As difficult as it may seem to be, there is no dichotomy or contradiction in God’s sovereignty and man’s gift of freewill. They are both true and can be considered two sides of the same coin. When we focus on the one, we have a tendency to forget or neglect the other. This should not be – we should be able to acknowledge both truths at the same time. Two passages in the gospel of John reflect this truth in regard to the act of “drawing.”
“Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:31-32).
Christ “will draw all men unto” Himself so that they can make their own decision regarding salvation through the sacrifice of Christ for man’s sins upon the cross.
At the same time:
“No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).
Those whom the Father knows will accept Christ’s sacrifice for their sins on the cross will be drawn to Jesus, and He “will raise him up at the last day.”
Both God’s sovereignty and man’s freewill are in play when it comes to being drawn — Christ draws every human being to His cross, that they make their choice regarding His free gift of salvation, and the Father draws all whom God knows will come to His Son in faith. But both drawings are entirely the works of God in allowing humankind, through freewill, the ability to choose.
Additionally, Christ Himself – being God in the flesh – knew everything of man when He was on the earth at His First Coming:
“Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man” (John 2:23-25). (emphasis mine)
This is a sobering passage of Scripture: “Many believed in His Name… but Jesus did not commit Himself unto them.” Whether or not those that believed in His Name because of the miracles were saved or not is not for us to know; but Christ knows because “He [knows] all men, and need not that any should testify of man, for He [knows] what [is] in man.” Here we see man’s freedom of choice – whether true or false converts – and God’s sovereign knowledge of the validity of that choice.
This is a mighty, sovereign, and omniscient God, indeed!
God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Freewill Are Both True!
God’s sovereignty and man’s freewill are both true and should not be viewed as opposed to each other or in conflict with each other. While we, in our finite and sinful condition, may find it difficult at times to reconcile these truths, we should at least be able to come to the conclusion that regardless of our lack of full understanding in any given revelation, we should never allow ourselves to be discouraged in our profession of faith in the perfect Word of God. Here is another chance for the man or woman of God to just let God be God and trust Him and His ways.
With that said, I do believe we can understand these truths, and I’ll be offering a few ways that may help the reader get a better grasp of the issue.
Calvinism’s Moral Depravity of God
Without hitting on all cylinders against the Calvinist doctrine of TULIP, I would be egregiously remiss if I didn’t assert that Calvinism’s claim that God “picks and chooses” who He will save – and who He sends to hell – is absolutely repulsive and makes God into a sinister monster. They have taken God’s sovereignty and turned it into a license of divine immorality and evil.
I realize that this is harsh, but what I know to be true about Almighty God revealed in Scripture shows Him to have no part in “predestinating” anyone to hell. People will be in hell because they chose to be there by rejecting God’s free gift of salvation through His Son and His sacrifice for their sins. Those who reject Christ’s love and sacrifice reject being under the Creator’s rule and desire to never be with Him for eternity. They are a god unto themselves and, most assuredly, rigorously hate Him and despise and reject His authority over them as Creator.
Bottom Line: Calvin’s God is not the God that I read about in Holy Scripture – not even close.
Digging a Little Deeper
Let’s look at this issue with a little different perspective and consider, first, God’s omniscience – or all-knowing – specifically, God’s foreknowledge.
God’s foreknowledge seems to be the key in reconciling God’s sovereignty and man’s God-given freewill of choice.
“Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure” (Isaiah 46:9-10).
If, because of foreknowledge, God already knows the beginning from the end, then we should expect that before God created, He already knew those He would create and, therefore, would know who would accept and love Him and who would reject and hate Him.
We see this omniscience of foreknowledge in Jesus Himself. When Christ gave His “hard sayings” on His being the bread of life and that men and women must eat of His body and drink of His blood (John 6:22-66), He said the following with a statement of truth concerning His omniscience of foreknowledge:
“But there are some of you that believe not. For Jesus knew from the beginning who they were that believed not, and who should betray him. And he said, Therefore said I unto you, that no man can come unto me, except it were given unto him of my Father” (John 6:64-65). (emphasis mine)
Here we see that Jesus, in His earthy ministry, “knew from the beginning who they were that believed not.” We also see the truth – not to the exception of man’s freewill, mind you – that “no man can come unto [Jesus] except it were given unto him of [Jesus’] Father.” This foreknowledge of who would and wouldn’t come to the Son has always been known of the Father and, by extension, the Son of God with the Holy Spirit “from the beginning.”
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. I and my Father are one” (John 10:27-30). (emphasis mine)
Examples of God’s Foreknowledge in Human Experience
I’d like to offer the following examples found in everyday human experience that might help the reader grasp God’s foreknowledge of the choices that mankind makes, through their own freewill, and how they play together with God’s pre-determined consummation of creation. While these examples will be far from perfect, they should help us to see this issue a little clearer.
In the examples below, I’ll be showing a professional job title. This professional, in our analogy, will be playing the role of God. Those who will be working for the professional to achieve his desired goal are representative of men and women having freewill. Through the foreknowledge of their actions, the professional will make accommodations for their choices and, ultimately, achieve the professional’s desired outcome.
The Songwriter: The Songwriter composes his song. He’s a generous and gracious Songwriter, so he allows each musician the freedom of expression. But, unbeknownst to them, by his foreknowledge of those individuals that will perform each instrument in the recording of his song, he makes adjustments in his composition to accommodate for each musician’s techniques, improvisations, and instinctive creative license in order to achieve his objective goal. By the foreknowledge of what each musician would do – both the musicians who would stay true to the composition and those who would improvise – and with the adjustments he made to accommodate all of the freewill decisions made by some of the musicians, the end result will be exactly the same as his original intent.
The Playwright: The Playwright has written his script and determined the story’s end. However, knowing through his foreknowledge – like the Songwriter – how some actors will embellish and improvise their lines, the Playwright makes accommodations and script adjustments for the other characters whom he knew would stay true to the script, to keep his story intact and to come to the desired end-result of his production.
The Architect: The Architect creates his plans for his building project. Nevertheless, he realizes, by his foreknowledge, that some of the contractors and sub-contractors will make mistakes, alter the blueprints due to perceived necessity, and offer their own creative license in the building process. The Architect, knowing all of this, will have already made the adjustments accordingly and/or pre-planned appropriately to, again, come to the desired end result of his original plans and intention for the building project.
In all three analogies, the professional was generous and gracious and allowed those he worked with freedom of choice in the process while still maintaining the integrity of the projects and desired end results.
Applying the Analogies
So, being as God sees the end from the beginning, He has used His foreknowledge in knowing in advance the decisions His creatures will make, and is able to work around those decisions as He orchestrates around other people’s lives in accordance with the freewill afforded to them, and all the other creatures playing out their own choices – good or bad – for billions upon billions of people for approximately 6,000 years now. It truly is mind-numbing when our finite intellect considers the complexity of how God works this all out, and that it was actually all worked out before He ever created!
My earthly mentor, Dave Hunt, put it this way concerning God’s foreknowledge and man’s freedom of choice:
“If God cannot know by His foreknowledge what every person will think and do by their free will, then He is not God. Moreover, the fact that God is able to allow man freedom of choice while still effecting His eternal purposes unhindered is all the more glorifying to His sovereign wisdom, power, and foreknowledge.
“What is future to us may not be future to God: He sees not only our past but our present and future as already having happened. From this understanding, God’s knowledge of what in our experience hasn’t yet happened would have no effect upon its occurrence and therefore would leave us free to choose.”
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
The Lord has instilled in every human being faith to be used as the individual desires through their own freewill. For example, they may use their God-given faith in everyday experience to trust in doctors, medicine, airplane pilots, safely driving a car to a destination, sitting in a chair, astronomy, counselors, love, elected leaders, politics, etc.
An evolutionist has faith to believe that nothing created something – a belief system devoid of facts and refuted by logic, common sense, and mathematics. Where did their inherent faith come from to believe such absurdity? God, of course; but what they did with that faith was, and is, up to them as they utilized their freewill of choice.
On the other side of the origins issue, people have the opportunity to use their God-gifted faith – as God intended – to recognize the creation’s Creator, their sinful condition, and come to God by accepting Jesus Christ as their Savior. Once they have given their lives to Christ, their faith is increased supernaturally by the study of God’s Word and trusting in His promises.
“But without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
We also see in Scripture that the Lord can increase our faith, if we so desire and petition Him, or He may increase our faith unilaterally. (emphasis mine)
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
“And the apostles said unto the Lord, Increase our faith” (Luke17:5).
“And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat: But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren” (Luke 22:31-32).
“And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
“Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2a).
The Lord is the “author and finisher of our faith,” and He will produce in us what we never could have produced in ourselves. Not that we are inactive participants in this faith – on the contrary – we are absolutely responsible for what we do with the faith that we have been so graciously given. We can squander or repress the faith given to us, or we may achieve much fruit by allowing God’s faith to rule and reign in our lives. As we grow in our love for Christ, our faith naturally grows.
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Note, again, that “the fruit of the Spirit is… faith” and that through the Spirit, we are able to exercise the faith the Lord has given us for His glory.
Faith is also a spiritual gift from the Spirit of God. Paul included faith as a spiritual gift this way:
“To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit… But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will” (1 Corinthians 12:9, 11). (emphasis mine)
It’s truly a two-way cooperative initiated by our loving God and Savior, carried out by our willingness to please Him, and culminates in life eternal for the man and woman of God!
Practical Ways of Looking at a Seemingly Complex Issue
Here are few statements I came up with, using many familiar Scriptural words and phrases, that may help the reader to better understand the unity of God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom of choice.
God, in His foreknowledge, knew all whom He would create – all who would accept His free gift of salvation in His Son and those who would not. Those He foreknew would give their lives to Him, He elected to be sons and daughters of God through predestination by His acts of creating and saving.
Every human being He ever created was and is eligible for salvation in Christ through their own freewill. The Lord desires all to come to Him – no exceptions. God, in His sovereignty, though, knows in advance those who will love Him and give their lives to Christ, but this does not negate the fact that God loves all and desires all to be with Him.
These truths will never negate our responsibility in preaching the gospel to all people, nor their responsibility to accept the Son’s free gift of salvation and reconciliation to the Father. For it is through this gospel that everyone has to make their own decisions regarding their eternal fate – for the Holy Spirit convicts all of their sin and, therefore, they who reject Him are without excuse.
Because God foreknew us – before He ever created – and knew we would choose Him with our own freewill and with the faith He would give us (along with the faith He gave to every other person to do with that faith what they pleased), He has chosen and predestinated us to be in Christ through His heavenly calling. Therefore, God created the heaven and the earth, and man in His image and likeness.
Salvation is entirely of God, yet man’s freedom of choice is also a determining factor. But we must remember, when it comes to salvation, that it is the Word of God, His law (Romans 7:7), and the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-8) that convicts men of sin and their need for a Savior, and without this drawing of God, mankind would be incapable of coming to God. In addition, God has granted to each man and woman enough faith to recognize this need of a Savior and to believe in Christ and come to Him for salvation. In all, salvation is the work of God, and our part is merely to believe in God’s salvation through Christ as revealed in His Holy Word.
The truth is that God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge, along with man’s freewill to decide their own fate, are both true. We just have a difficult time, in our human frailty and fallen state, to fully grasp both of these truths in proper context and full knowledge of understanding. But just because we, at times, may struggle with fully understanding and communicating these truths, it doesn’t mean we can’t understand. We can understand through diligent study of the Word of God and the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit.
This is the bottom line of election and predestination: It is because God decided to create – knowing who would and would not come to Him and, most importantly, that it would require His Son to become a man and pay the penalty for mankind’s sins – that election and predestination are even a thing. God didn’t have to create, knowing all that He did. But He did create, knowing all that it would cost Him!
Yes, God’s Sovereignty and Man’s Freewill can, at times, be difficult to fully grasp, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, it shouldn’t be. Everything we have looked at in this study is not in conflict and at odds with each other; quite the opposite, as they are in harmony and complement each other. Both are true, and both should be seen for what they are – essential to man’s salvation.
I can honestly state that I am not, or could ever be, a Calvinist who believes God picks and chooses who He will save and who He sends to hell, and that man is incapable of choosing God through freewill. Neither am I Arminian, who tends to downplay and/or diminish God’s sovereignty, with many denying the Biblical doctrine of Eternal Security – that a person can lose their salvation. Nor would I say that I fall somewhere in between, for both tenets essentially get it wrong. It’s best for me, and I pray for other Christians too, that labels or being defined by a nuanced doctrinal creed need not apply. I’m content with being known, simply and honestly, as a Biblical Christian.
This is the conclusion of the matter: We all would be just an after-thought in the mind of God had He not elected to create us and predestined to adopt us into His family through His Son’s merciful and loving sacrifice – a sacrifice any human being can freely accept and cherish. And, if this were to be the case – that God decided that it just wasn’t worth it and elected not to create – then I would never have written this article, and you would never have read it because both of us would never have existed.
Let’s praise the Lord that He did choose us before the foundation of the world by His act of creating and that we were willing and able to come to His call of lovingkindness through Christ by our God-given freewill and His amazing grace that He extends to all of mankind!
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Being as “we see through a glass darkly,” let us allow God to be God and for us to steadfastly look to these three foundational truths that should guide our lives in Christ.
Faith – Utilize the faith the Lord has so graciously given us, trusting in Him, His Word, and His promises, that we may fulfill the plans of God in our lives and bring in much fruit for His Kingdom!
Believe – Believe every Word of God and that He will accomplish all that He has said He would in His Word concerning us and our living our lives through Him and for Him. Carry out The Great Commission with intense love as we witness to a lost and dying world, proclaiming salvation in Christ Jesus to all who will hear. Believing fully that at our last breath – or in the rapture of the church – we will forever be with our God and Savior!
Trust – Trust in the One Who is trustworthy, leaving “the secret things [that] belong unto the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29) in His more than capable Hands, allowing Him to be God, for He is worthy. Trust that He will make all things right and that all things will work together for good (Romans 8:28), knowing that eternal life with our Lord is but a breath and a heartbeat away!
Love, grace, mercy, and shalom in Messiah Yeshua, and Maranatha!
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