Calvinism, Arminianism, and What’s at Stake
When we try to wrap our finite minds around the magnitude and complexities of an all-powerful God, we are going to fail. For starters, how can God be in complete control of this world and have perfect knowledge of the future, yet still grant us the power of real choice?
Because our tiny minds are trying to grasp realities way above our pay grade, we will inevitably have a very poor understanding of all the issues. This has created strife and division among Christians who have reduced these awesome mysteries to a self-titled war of “Calvinism versus Arminianism.” There are complex theological systems with these names that do genuinely differ from each other, but few Christians today fully understand them. Calvinism has become shorthand for believing in the sovereignty of God, and Arminianism is often the insult thrown at those who wonder what role our ability to choose plays in our life and salvation.
The problem here is that both sides have biblical truth, and both accuse the other of ignoring an aspect of truth. Both sides also raise troubling issues: Was it fair for God to create people he knew would reject him and let them suffer in hell? If God graciously chooses to awaken some who are spiritually dead, why doesn’t he choose to regenerate everyone?
A younger me set out on an epic quest to forever resolve the sovereignty/free will debate. I was going to find the perfect scriptural balance. I read books on both sides and carefully studied the relevant Bible passages, and all I got was a giant headache. I realized it was absurd for me, a little speck of dust in our swirling galaxy, to be arguing about what God could and couldn’t do. I gave up.
But since that point, I have realized that, while I will never be able to grasp how these seemingly contradictory truths resolve, I need to be careful that my meditations and efforts to understand do not lead me away from the truth that God has revealed in His Word.
If I am not careful, I can take one aspect of truth, and then twist it into an untruth by use of misinformed logic. For instance, I can focus on the truth that God is in complete control of this world but then twist this into the idea that I am simply a character in God’s novel, and whatever will be will be. Whatever sin I commit or choice I make is just part of the predetermined plot: I have no real choice so why bother with careful decision making? This can produce apathy about effort, or lead to abandoning my responsibilities. Of course, the complete version of this pseudo-fatalism is unliveable, not to mention that God’s sovereign grace prevents me from fully embracing such error.
However, what I believe does affect my actions and when I lose sight of God’s control, and instead focus on man’s choice, a whole new set of perversions can enter: anxiety, pride, self-reliance, etc.
My purpose is not to resolve the mystery or answer all the questions, but to urge you to not lose sight of the biblical boundaries for exploration of this topic.
1. God is Sovereign
God’s kingship and rule over our entire universe is jaw-dropping. Scripture unabashedly proclaims that God is the Creator. He is before all and over all. Carefully read just a few of the verses that describe God’s control of this world.
“Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, The power and the glory, The victory and the majesty; For all that is in heaven and in earth is Yours; Yours is the kingdom, O Lord,
And You are exalted as head over all. 12 Both riches and honor come from You, And You reign over all. In Your hand is power and might; In Your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. (1 Chronicles 29:11-12)
“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2)
“For his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation 35 all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” (Daniel 4:34b-35)
“11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will,” (Ephesians 1:11)
“18 Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.19 One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:18-19)
We cannot lose sight of this magnificent Kingship. God is a ruler who always has the final say. No one can overthrow his rule.
Scripture is also clear that God has complete knowledge of the future:
“I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say, ‘My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.’ (Isaiah 46:10)
Nothing catches Him off-guard. There are no unforeseen elements that will derail God’s ultimate purposes.
This is reality. We cannot deny this truth without great peril to our souls.
2. We have the power of choice.
God has given us the power to choose between alternatives. (Joshua 24:15) We get to help write our life script. Our choices have consequences. Time and time again, God’s word warns that to follow the paths of wickedness is to bring heartbreak and ruin into our lives, but the path of godliness will lead to rewards in this life and the next (ie. all the Proverbs).
God has mysteriously given us the power to affect our life, and sometimes what we choose makes God grieve, like when Jesus bemoaned that he longed to shelter the children of Israel, but they were not willing (Matthew 23:37). But God also says that if people repent, He will relent from the calamity He had purposed to bring on them as punishment (Jeremiah 26:3).
The apostles do not have an apathetic view that life will passively go the way it is supposed to regardless of our choices. Paul wrote: “So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31). Peter warned to “make every effort to confirm your calling and election.” And he made every effort to remind them of truth. Hebrews is also full of warnings and urging us to make our choice “today.”
Paul cautions us in Galations 6:7, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”
What we choose makes a difference, but our so-called “free will” is not an inalienable right, and never trumps God’s authority. God knows our every decision and always has the final move.
How these truths reconcile is far beyond what I can grasp, but it is clear that our choices matter, and that what we choose will affect us and those around us.
3. The power and influence of sin is great.
Apart from Christ, we are slaves to sin. Here is Paul’s diagnosis: 14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand. For what I will to do, that I do not practice; but what I hate, that I do. 16 If, then, I do what I will not to do, I agree with the law that it is good. 17 But now, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. 18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. 19 For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. 20 Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”
How does sin control us? One way is through deception. Satan is the father of lies, and our thinking is constantly being hijacked and fed false information that makes doing wrong look like right and vice versa. Sin also controls us by the manipulation of our drives and appetites. Our desires for food and sex are good things. But they can be driven out of control to where we feel enslaved to them and powerless to resist them. Our hormonal system is a wonderful gift, but things like our adrenaline can be kidnapped by a sin-fuelled rage and turn us into destructive monsters. If we rely on our willpower, sin will wear us down. We will not have the strength to resist. Scripture is clear that without Christ’s power, we can do nothing (John 15).
Because of sin and satanic powers, we do not have completely free will anymore. We are slaves. Urging people to just choose to be good fails to recognize the power of sin and condemns people to a life of discouragement. The only way we can be “good” in our own strength, is to redefine goodness in our favour and overlook a host of sins we cannot overcome on our own.
WHAT THESE TRUTHS MEAN FOR US PRACTICALLY:
There is no room for pride or boasting in ourselves.
Even though we have the power of choice, think about just how much of life is outside of our ability to change. We did not choose the time of history we were born in, the family that influenced us, our genetic makeup, our IQ, our giftings, or the people God chose to speak truth into our life. We are not responsible for many of the opportunities to do good that presented themselves to us over the course of our life.
We cannot take credit for an awakened conscience or the conviction of the Holy Spirit. We only find freedom from the debilitating guilt and power of sin because of the work of Jesus Christ.
Because of all these things it is worthless to compare ourselves with others. The choices we make all have different starting points that are determined by the grace and choice of God. We will be judged not just by what we did, but by what we did with what we were given (Luke 12:48). And I’m sure that everyone who is reading this blog has been given much. The thought of how much is required of us because of all we have been given should make us cry out to God for mercy and strength.
We need to take our choices seriously.
It is a sobering reality that we can do great damage with this gift of choice. So much joy and pleasure can be forfeited with a single bad decision. Satan knows this all too well, and wants to rob our quality of life. Sin is the great robber of all that is good. Husbands can throw away the gift of sexual satisfaction by becoming slaves to pornography. Wives can throw away marital happiness through a critical, condemning spirit. I could go on and on about the many ways we forfeit life by choosing rebellion to God.
An even harder reality to accept is just how much pain and misery God will allow us to inflict on other people before he will stop us. The holocaust, the countless rapes, and child molestation are all testaments to how sin will take us further than we ever wanted it to.
We desperately need God.
The fact that God has allowed us to help write our story should not produce a self-confidence or an apathy towards God. If anything it should drive us to our knees in desperation. We should be pleading with God to give us his strength and grace to keep us from the misery and destruction sin will bring. We cannot defeat sin on our own, but the power of God and the Gospel is greater. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). Because of the power of the Holy Spirit, we can choose freedom. Where once we were slaves, we are now royal children. Our Father has complete power and dominion.
Being freed from sin does not guarantee that we will automatically make wise choices. Some people will build with gold and silver, while others will continue to build with hay and stubble. The final value of each one’s work will be revealed on judgement day. Some whose work will be burned will be still be saved but as by fire (1 Cor 3:12-15).
Being a child of God by the power of the Gospel does not make us robots. We still must be diligent and make every effort to glorify God with our decisions. God has given us gifts and talents, but we can choose to bury them, and let them fall into neglect, or we can be diligent to develop them for God’s glory.
I am in no way referring to doing this on our own strength empowered by self-help books. We must continually be refilled with God’s power, and continue to implant God’s life-giving Word into our souls. We are nothing on our own and when we lose sight of the source of our strength, we will again fall prey to the power of sin.
God can be trusted
God knows the end from the beginning. He has a perfect plan to bring good out of all the pain and misery we and the forces of evil have brought on this world. Nothing comes to us except for what God will use for a greater good. Nothing surprises him. He knows every tragedy and act of betrayal in your future, and will use it for your good. God works all things for the good of those who trust Him and are called according to his purposes. (Rom 8:28-29)
We can let go of all bitterness, because no matter what was taken from us by the wrongdoing of others, God can bring complete healing, and use it for a greater good. (Gen 50:20) God always has the final word.
God’s ways are higher than our ways, and his wisdom is beyond what we can comprehend. There will always be questions, but I have no choice but to bow my knee to His master plan. God loves us beyond what we can imagine, and he has done so much more than we deserve to save us. He is pure goodness and kind beyond all measure. Our fate and the fate of those we love could not be left in better hands than the nail-pierced hands of our good and wise, all-powerful Saviour.
Stuart • January 14, 2015
A younger me wanted to argue people into the Kingdom of God. Later, while still young, I wanted to argue people in the doctrines of grace known as Calvinsim. I see how we tend to take whichever side we hold to and make a straw man of the other side. This may make us feel good about our prideful self, but it does not convince the other person. We must – as you counsel here – be willing to speak in love about God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s inescapable responsibility before God. This is the same complexity as discussing “God is love”; yes, He is, but He is more than that – and biblical love is not the same as what we see in the movies.
Jay • January 15, 2015
Amen, amen, and again amen to every little bit (or “jot and tittle”) of this! I’ve never liked the whole “Calvinist vs. Arminianist” dichotomy. It’s all about matters that we’re never, ever going to get our finite, sinful little minds around this side of eternity. (It’s been 400-500 years since Calvin and Arminus, for Pete’s sake, and we’re no closer to understanding the matters they addressed!) It just seems like just another way Christians get resentfully divided from each other when they should be united — not united under Calvin, not under Arminius, but under Christ and Christ alone. God, speaking through the Apostle Paul, addressed such divisions in 1 Corinthians:
1 Corinthians 3
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
18 For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Jesse Jost • January 15, 2015
In this post I complained about the imprecise usage of the terms Calvinism and Arminianism. However I then failed to clarify what is held in each view. I do not want to downplay the importance of careful doctrine or imply that the search into the difficult issues is not worth your time. I asked my friend who is attending a conservative reformed seminary for some concise definitions of both views that would accurately portray both sides. This is what he wrote:
“Arminianism teaches that God has done everything necessary to making salvation equally possible for each person on the planet, yet sovereignly leaves the final choice of faith and repentance in the hands of each individual person.
Calvinism teaches that God does everything necessary to secure actual salvation of those he has predestined, and so works in the hearts of his elect to bring about faith and repentance.”
I would add to this that, sadly, many Christians think truth can be determined by what they “like” instead of what the Bible says. Don’t just go with the view that appeals to you. Study carefully for yourselves what the Bible actually says. However, also be careful to not go beyond what is actually stated in the Bible. Extrapolating with our faulty logic can lead to a misrepresentation of our kind and holy sovereign king.
nicodemus • January 15, 2015
I agree with you Jesse that many of the errors and arguments are based upon extrapolations and presupposed ideas of what passages say instead of the true meaning of texts.
Jesse Jost • January 16, 2015
For those of you who are curious about where I stand in regard to these two views: I think everything that my friend mentioned in his concise Calvinist definition is pretty clearly taught in scripture. Emotionally, I struggle with the flip side that God could save certain people if he wanted to but chooses not to. But since Scripture does not specifically state this reverse of Calvinism (at least as far as I can see) I just choose to be thankful that my own Salvation is graciously and undeservedly being secured by God and trust that God will treat the non-elect in way that accords with his intrinsic love and kindness. When all is revealed I believe that we will have nothing but an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude and worship Him for doing all things well.