God always does as he pleases, when He pleases, where He pleases, with whom He pleases. -A.W. Pink
The discussion of understanding the sovereignty of God and free will of man can be traced through history as notable theologians such as Augustine and Pelagius, Calvin and Arminius, Charles Spurgeon, John Wesley, George Whitefield, and many others have publicly stood for what we now call “Calvinism” or “Arminianism”. The heart of this issue revolves around the challenge that we have as finite beings to understand the complete and total sovereignty of God in light of an apparent free will of humanity. The only way that we can accurately understand this dilemma is in light of the inspired and inerrant Word of God that has given us all things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). This article will seek to present and defend a biblical position on the sovereignty of God and the free will of men.
As we have sought to define these two theological camps it is necessary to understand that there really is no “middle ground” in this argument. Either God is sovereign in His saving work among humans or He is not and the salvation of men hinges on the decision of the individual. So, once we have rightly understood that we must fall into a theological camp we can now define our terms and come to an understanding of what these two belief systems espouse.
The most widely used mnemonic device to give the basic tenants of Calvinism is the acronym TULIP which we will use to give a general outline with short definitions and scriptural support.
- Total Depravity – This doctrine states that man, in and of himself is completely wicked from birth as all human beings inherit a sinful nature that defines us as “desperately wicked” and utterly unable to save ourselves. Given the choice in this fallen state, humanity will always choose that which is corrupt and worship idols instead of that which is good and glorifies God (cf. Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 1:28-32, 5:12; Jeremiah 17:9; 1 Timothy 5:6; 2 Peter 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:29-31, 15:22; Colossians 2:13; John 6:65).
- Unconditional Election – This second distinctive that we understand from Scripture is the logical step from the first point. Unconditional Election states that the Lord, in His sovereign will chose some to be saved. These very beings that were chosen before the creation of the earth were not chosen because of any good thing that was within them; rather, God has elected these members of the fallen human race to be saved from their sinful disposition “to the praise of His glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6). (cf. Exodus 33:19; Psalms 115:3, 135:6; Proverbs 16:33; Isaiah 46:10; Acts 13:48; Romans 1:7, 9:14-16; 1 Corinthians 1:24; Ephesians 1:4-6, 2:10; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; 2 Timothy 1:8-9; 1 Peter 1:2; Jude 1).
- Limited Atonement – Here we come to possibly one of the more contested distinctives of this doctrine as we discuss Limited or Actual Atonement. The doctrine of Limited Atonement emphasizes the nature of the work that Christ did on the cross and who that sacrifice was for. This doctrine says that Christ did not potentially die for all but that He actually died for some. Given that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is totally effective in its ability to wipe away the sins of broken human beings it is not possible that Jesus died for people who are going to hell. In other words, given the sovereignty of God and His omniscience, his knowledge of all people in all events of time and history esp., He has specifically ordained some to come to a saving knowledge of Him in light of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Furthermore, if a holy and loving God sent His son as a perfect sacrifice to die for the whole world then there would be no need for a hell. if there was God would be unjust for sending people there regardless if they “accept” the sacrifice or not. We do in fact know that there are people who will be in hell that place of eternal punishment and we know that God is sovereign and omniscient; therefore, to reject the limited nature of the atonement is to reject the sovereignty of God and begins to flirt with universalism (cf. Isaiah 46:9-10; 1 John 3:20; Matthew 10:28-30, 22:14; Mark 9:43).
- Irresistible Grace – Another particular of these doctrines of grace is what is called irresistible grace or effectual calling. The heart of this statement says that those whom the Lord calls will absolutely follow that calling. It is to say that when the king summons his servant that servant will come. What has been possibly misunderstood about this doctrine is that some have said that if this is true then God is taking people to heaven against their will. Since these people “cannot resist” God’s grace then they are basically going to heaven kicking and screaming. Unfortunately, this is a great misunderstanding and actually quite the opposite of what happens in the life of a true believer. Upon salvation the believer has his spiritual eyes opened and heart renewed thus giving him the awareness of his standing with God in light of the perfect sacrifice that Christ made. As a result of this understanding, the now regenerate believer cannot help but live his life for the purpose and pleasure of his Lord and Master. This life that is now lived is not out of obligation but of a genuine desire to bear the image of God rightly and to reflect Christ’s sacrifice in every area of his life (cf. John 6:37-40; Romans 8:14-17).
- Perseverance of the Saints – Penultimately this doctrine concludes with the Perseverance of the Saints. This final tenant states that once a sinner is saved from his sin that the sinner cannot relinquish or lose his salvation because of any choice or action on the behalf of him who was saved. Just as the Father sovereignly and divinely justifies men so also does He preserve them in their salvation. One protest to this may be that we have observed many who have been in the church for a time but then “walked away” from the faith. Under these kinds of circumstances, it is clear that this person never had a true saving knowledge or relationship with Christ. Despite any good deeds they may have done those deeds are irrelevant if they ultimately apostatize from the faith (cf. John 10:27-30; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Jude 1).
Now, given these summaries of the major points of the Doctrines of Grace I find it utterly important to understand the history and doctrine of the opposition so that we have a full understanding of what the other option in this discussion would be. Jacob Arminius by in large represents the total and complete opposition of what we now call Calvinism and these are the five remonstrances that were devised by Arminius’ followers two years following his death.
- Article 1 (Conditional Election) – That God, by an eternal and unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his Son, before the foundation of the world, hath determined, out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath, and to condemn them as alienate from Christ, according to the word of the Gospel in John 3:36: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him,” and according to other passages of Scripture also.
- Article 2 (Unlimited Atonement) – That agreeably thereunto, Jesus Christ the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16, “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.” And in the First Epistle of 1 John 2:2: “And he is the propitiation for our sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”
- Article 3 (Partial Depravity) – That man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do any thing that is truly good (such as saving faith eminently is); but that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers, in order that he may rightly understand, think, will, and effect what is truly good, according to the Word of Christ, John 15:5, “Without me ye can do nothing.”
- Article 4 (Prevenient Grace) – That this grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and accomplishment of all good, even to this extent, that the regenerate man himself, without prevenient or assisting, awakening, following and cooperative grace, can neither think, will, nor do good, nor withstand any temptations to evil; so that all good deeds or movements, that can be conceived, must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. but respects the mode of the operation of this grace, it is not irresistible; inasmuch as it is written concerning many, that they have resisted the Holy Ghost. Acts 7, and elsewhere in many places.
- Article 5 (Conditional Perseverance) – That those who are incorporated into Christ by true faith, and have thereby become partakers of his life-giving Spirit, have thereby full power to strive against Satan, sin, the world, and their own flesh, and to win the victory; it being well understood that it is ever through the assisting grace of the Holy Ghost; and that Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations, extends to them his hand, and if only they are ready for the conflict, and desire his help, and are not inactive, keeps them from falling, so that they, by no craft or power of Satan, can be misled nor plucked out of Christ’s hands, according to the Word of Christ, John 10:28: “Neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.” But whether they are capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginning of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scripture, before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our mind.
So, now what? How is it that we should view each of these positions in light of both seeking to provide Scriptural backing?
I would like to begin by saying that simply because someone or some theological system presents a Bible verse with it does not make it a credible or reliable system. There are many men and women who have sought to use the Word of God to “defend” their position. One example should be enough to illustrate my point. If Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, T. D. Jakes, or any other false teacher would use the Scriptures in a sermon to prove that you can “live your best life now” or that “you are a god” that does not mean that we ought to give them theological credence simply because they have twisted the truth to fit a modern construct so that they might benefit from it. In the United States especially we have given ourselves to the notion that we live in the “land of the free and the home of the brave”. We find it incredibly offensive if anyone would take away our “personal freedoms” and we abhor anyone who would say that we cannot pursue whatever we want, whenever we want. After all, we are the result of the selection of millions of years of evolutionary genius that has now created a race of humans more fit and more intelligent and more worthy of praise than any other time period in history, right? This is what the practical theology of the west has marked down on their doctrinal resume and now we must remind ourselves what the inerrant and enduring Word of God says on the subject.
With this in mind here are the flaws that I would understand an Arminian perspective would fail to interpret the Word of God in light of the Word of God as well as with a proper authorial intent. If then we are “dead” in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1) then we are spiritually unfit and unable to make ourselves “alive in Christ” (Eph. 2:5). Furthermore, if then we are the sovereign agents in our salvation, which we must be if we come to the Lord on our own strength and own accord, then God is not omniscient, omnipotent, or sovereign. A. W. Pink has stated it this way,
“To argue that God is “trying His best” to save all mankind, but that the majority of men will not let Him save them, is to insist that the will of the Creator is impotent and that the will of the creature is omnipotent. To throw the blame, as many do, upon the Devil, does not remove the difficulty, for if Satan is defeating the purpose of God, then, Satan is Almighty and God is no longer the Supreme Being.”
If then the position of free will would argue that Calvinists are horrid and unthinkably awful for espousing double predestination what then does the Arminian say to the glaring issue that a denial of God’s sovereignty in salvation necessitates a denial of His omniscience, immutability, omnipotence, and the truth that He wars and wins against Satan always. Too often I have heard the statement that Satan has “won another battle” but I have yet to find a single verse that substantiates this statement. Satan never “wins”, God does. To attribute victory to Satan is a failure to recognize that God is just, holy, omniscient, and able to use all situations for the good of His people.
Ezekiel 11:19-20; 36:26-27; Romans 3-4; 7:18; 8:4-8, 31-39; Ephesians 2:8-10; Philippians 1:6 state clearly and concisely what we would understand as a monergistic understanding of justification. To state it more clearly, the Lord, God of Heaven, omniscient and sovereign being of the universe by His divine power and free choice predestined all who would be saved. This salvation is not temporary and cannot be reversed or else God would not have chosen them. To quote John MacArthur, “If you could lose your salvation, you would”. There is no dead man who by his own power brought himself back to life; therefore, in the same way, there is no spiritually dead person who has ever been regenerated by his own volition.
The point that I would make is that many well intending believers confuse the monergistic nature of justification with the synergistic nature of sanctification. That topic may be well suited for another discussion; however, it is important that we hold fast to this truth that our God is sovereign, He is just, and He has sent His only Son to justify those whom He has called.
Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. – Psalm 115:3