I try to have as many theological conversations as possible, covering a wide range of topics. One of my personal favorites, and one I keep returning to, is the Calvinism and Arminianism discussion. I love the depth to which the conversations can go, the breadth of disciplines involved, and the people who participate. Unfortunately the conversation is occasionally corrupted by a lack of love and peace, and can degrade into name-calling and trolling, but the conversation continues regardless.
An important point of formation during my time at college was learning about the creeds of the church. I was at a point in my life where I was still marred by my negative church teachings, which led me to bifurcate people into black and white categories: either they believed the truth or they didn't. My trouble was that leaving my home church left me wondering just what truth was supposed to be believed.
The church creeds helped pull me out of this mire. Finally I had found a document (The 381 Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, to be exact) that delineated truth from error that I felt I could fully get behind. This document spelled out what a Christian believes about some of the biggest points in the religion. I came to appreciate this creed not only for what it said, but also for what it didn't say. Suddenly, I could look at someone as a brother or sister, even if they believed completely differently than me about, well, take your pick: abortion, homosexuality, the purpose of the book of Revelation, inerrancy, and even Calvinism/Arminianism.
That last conversation, one of my favorites, takes place squarely within Christian orthodoxy. Most people fall within the beliefs outlined in the 381 creed. People on both sides of the conversation worship the same God. I personally try to acknowledge this reality whenever I begin dialogue with someone about Calvinism/Arminianism, as well as at the beginning of lengthy blog posts on the topic.
I recently engaged in another iteration of this conversation on a Facebook group I'm a member of. It was refreshing to see the original post's treatment of both sides of the issue; I felt he accurately represented both sides of the discussion fairly, given his short descriptions. My contribution , which I expound on here, was to point out an important and oft overlooked aspect of the discussion: starting points.
From my experience of this conversation, each side begins with a certain set of premises, combines those premises in an argument, and draws valid conclusions from them. Both sides bring convincing evidence to bear on their respective arguments. Failing to recognize this important aspect of the discussion leads many interlocutors to talk past one another, failing to see from one another's perspective.
Nowadays I find myself in the Arminian camp (whereas I grew up in a mostly Calvinist church). Thankfully I had the influence of humble professors who offered their position on the topics in a loving, respectful, and logical way. It is under their tutelage that my own perspective on this conversation grown more solid, and I grew more self-aware of the lenses I use to look at the evidence available.
One of the lenses that I've been trying to keep in front of me at all times is the Gospel. While an excellent buzz word (synergy!), Gospel-centeredness has become a sort of rubric in my theological discernment. When I come at a topic, I do my best to focus on how believing this or that relates to the Gospel: does this position communicate or obfuscate the Gospel, does that belief incorporate or reinterpret the Gospel? What does the Gospel say about my beliefs, and how can it reshape them?
This is my starting point for my Arminian position. I'm intimately concerned with Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. What does Jesus say about it, and what do his disciples say about it? Many other people are concerned about this as well. I believe this concern nudges many to be "four point Calvinists." They see that it is apparent in scripture that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, and thus profess accordingly the third point of Arminianism: Unlimited Atonement
1 John 2:2 and He Himself is the ἱλασμός for our sins, not for ours alone, but even for the whole world.
Romans 5:6-8 Yet Christ, while we were helpless, at the right time still died for the ungodly. For someone will hardly die for a righteous man, though maybe someone will dare to die for a good man. But God demonstrates his own love to us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.Notice also that I have left ἱλασμός (hilasmós) untranslated in 1 John 2:2. This is because this word is theologically huge (technical term). At its root is the Old Testament idea of atoning sacrifices and payments. These were intended to pay for sins committed, which then prevents judgments of various sorts from falling on the sinner. To quote Büchsel (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, volume 3, page 317) "The meaning, then, is the setting aside of sin as guilt against God." This concept becomes important later in my argument.
I have quoted the two passages above to give a sampling of scriptural evidence in support of Unlimited Atonement. But of equal concern to me as the "who" of atonement is the "what." Just what did Jesus accomplish on the cross? While this question is of incredible significance and scope, the scripture does speak to it. Below are a few passages that shape my understanding of the atonement.
Galatians 1:4 who gave himself for our sins, in order that he might deliver us from the present evil age according to the will of God our Father
Revelation 1:5 ...To the One who loves us and freed us from our sins via his blood,
2 Corinthians 5:15 and he died for everyone, in order that those who are alive would no longer live for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.Through these three verses we glimpse a fraction of the picture, but a crucial fraction nonetheless. Deliverance is an important theme, and it appears that we are being freed from our sins. Sin is a master, a prison, something we as humans have to be rescued from. Christ came to bring us freedom, though not for freedom's sake, but so that we can live for Christ. Again, these are crucial realities that the Cross created for us, and if we take the verses concerning unlimited atonement at face value, this reality applies to all people. Take up this lens and look with me at one of my favorite passages, containing the most popular and widely translated verses in all of Scripture.
John 3:16-21 For God loved the world like this: He gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him wouldn't perish, but have eternal life. For God didn't send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so the world would be saved through Him. The one who believes in Him is not condemned; the one who doesn't believe is judged already because that person does not believe in the name of the only begotten Son of God, and this is the basis for judgment: the Light has come into the world and people have loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For anyone who does worthless things hates the light, and come into the light so that their deeds won't be exposed. But the one practices the truth comes to the light so that it would be made known that the works were done in God. (emphases mine)This passage is a choreographed dance showing us the intimate relationship between faith and works, belief and deeds. Not only does it reiterate unlimited atonement by showing that God is acting on behalf of the whole world out of His love for the whole world, it sheds light on the judgment of those who don't believe. Notice the bolded word "because." Judgment, according to this passage, is already in place, but it is there because people haven't believed. The basis of this judgment, the basis for judging that people who haven't believed, is that they are still behaving in terrible ways. But there is a fine line here that must be recognized: People are judged because they haven't believed, and it's obvious that they haven't believed, because they're still behaving wickedly, loving darkness rather than light, and refusing to have their works illuminated by Jesus.
Taking all of these passages into consideration, my argument is as follows: The atonement is for everyone, available to all, based on the love God has shown to the whole world. The atonement accomplished, among other things (and this is where the above treatment of ἱλασμός becomes relevant), "the setting aside of sin as guilt against God." And the atonement, per the passage above, among others, is unlimited, for the whole world. If the atonement is unlimited, and that one thing the atonement accomplished is that it set aside sin as guilt against God, then it is no longer sin that makes anyone guilty before God.
Now, let's return to John 3:18 and the because of judgment. Sin has been "paid for" in the sense that it is no longer sin that makes us guilty before God. Rather, unbelief is the cause of judgment. Unbelief is shown to be unbelief based on the works that a person does. The unbeliever will hide his or her sins, failing to allow the Gospel to shine on them. But the believer, in John 3:21, allows his or her deeds to be revealed for what they really are. It is the universality of the atonement as a great ἱλασμός that allows belief to be the basis of judgment; if all sin is paid for, the only thing left for us is to believe that it is so. This opportunity is available to all, because all sin is paid for.
If it seems at this point I have left the discussion of Arminianism and Calvinism behind, fear not. I needed to establish Unlimited Atonement as biblical, as well as elucidate a biblical view of what said atonement accomplishes. If I have done so, we can now work with the premise of unlimited atonement, and see how it affects the other points of Calvinism.
While it is reassuring to affirm the universality of the atonement as a display of God's love for His entire creation, one cannot help but be struck by the stark reality that many do not accept God's gift. These are those mentioned in John 3:18 as those who have not believed. That these individuals are judged because of their unbelief is telling, and in contrast with the second point of Calvinism: unconditional election.
Judgment of an individual is a result of their belief or unbelief; it is entirely conditional on the belief of the individual. While this doesn't counter unconditional election by itself, it serves as a stepping stone toward that end. It would be good to turn to 1 Timothy 2 at this point, and see how Paul uses unlimited atonement as evidence for God's desire to save.
1 Timothy 2:3-6 [the prayer for all people] is good and acceptable before God our Savior who wishes that all people would be saved and come to a full knowledge of truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and people, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for everyonePaul here talks about praying for everyone. He says that God finds intercessory prayers for all people to be pleasing. The reason God is pleased when we pray for others is that God wants everyone to be saved. And God wants everyone to be saved, since Jesus was given as a ransom for all. But here's the kicker: not everyone is saved. This here is where experience interjects reality into our understanding of God. Paul says that God really does want everyone to be saved, but reality shows us that not everyone is. In this instance, what God really does want, and what actually happens, are different things.
SOVEREIGNTY & FREE WILL
"WOAH HOLD UP!" one might say. "Ok now we're talking about God's Sovereignty and human free will! You can't just interpret the passage like that! It has to be interpreted with Sovereignty in mind!" I'm not sure why my interlocutor has begun using exclamation marks at this point, but were I in his shoes I'm sure I would as well. One would be right to discern that this is a part of the overall conversation. At this point, it is a question of whether God gets what He wants in this instance, as well as a question of whether God causes everything that he wants. If we work with the understanding of unlimited atonement I have described, and know that God's justification of a person comes as a result of their belief (the only unstated premise here that I can see is that justification is a prerequisite to salvation, but I'm not sure anyone would argue this point), then God does not always justify everyone. God in his infinite grace has provided all circumstances for people to believe and be justified. It would appear that he earnestly wants all people to be saved. Which is why I take 1 Timothy 2:4 at face value, through the lens of unlimited atonement, and infer that God doesn't always get what He wants. If this is the case, if God only provides salvific faith and subsequent justification to those whom He has previously elected unconditionally, then God is working contrary to His desires. Since God does not work against his own desires, there must be something else going on here.
I contend that this something else is libertarian human free will. Let me dwell for just a moment more on free will and sovereignty. I contend that sovereignty should not be considered in terms of "control" but in terms of action based on desire. I have heard sovereignty described frequently as God's meticulous control over all creation. I challenge that definition because in light of this discussion we can see that, taken at face value, God doesn't appear to get everything God wants. This doesn't deny God's sovereignty if we think about sovereignty less in terms of "God getting His way" than "God doing what He wants." It is possible that God, as an entirely sovereign being, chose to give free will to some of his creation. This would indeed be a mighty gift, for in giving it, the Creator of the universe is allowing His creation to make meaningful, substantive, could-be-otherwise alterations to creation. Because one or another creature freely decides to act against God does not violate God's sovereign actions toward that person; God will always continue to sovereignly act in the self-sacrificial love that He has exemplified in giving us His only begotten Son. This view of sovereignty is my attempt at a Gospel-centered view on sovereignty. Also, as a devotional point, it should be noted here that the greatest gift we can give to God is to return our free will to Him and live not by our own decisions, but by the Holy Spirit.
I have not even begun to touch on the concept of free will and its relation to our perception of it, and what that might say of a God who (theoretically) created us to think we had free will when in fact we don't. Nor have I touched on the utter impossibility of actually believing, and behaving accordingly, that we don't have free will. I will say at this point that I believe free will to be a part of the imago Dei, something that remained relatively undamaged by the Fall. It was heavily influenced, and continues to be, by sin, to be sure. But that free will exists as part of the image of God lends me to believe that the divine image in human beings wasn't totally destroyed by sin. This appears, from my perspective, to go against the teaching of Total Depravity, but let me nuance my position on this teaching further by defending against accusations of Pelagianism.
God is the only one who is capable of saving humanity. Apart from God's grace and mercy there would be no ἱλασμός to begin with, and if there is no ἱλασμός, faith in the ἱλασμός would be void of meaning. Thus, it is God sovereignly and graciously acting to provide a ἱλασμός that makes faith in the ἱλασμός possible. In fact, it is logically impossible for faith in ἱλασμός to exist without there being a ἱλασμός. Theoretically, I suppose that the Law, if it could be followed, could have provided righteousness. But I agree with Paul's estimation of the likelihood of that happening: 0%. I believe humans are so tainted by sin that, alone, they are incapable of saving themselves without divine mercy. But that is a different thing to say than what I believe: human beings are capable of exercising the remaining faculty of the imago Dei and choose to believe in God's merciful ἱλασμός. I think this is where my departure from traditionally understood Total Depravity takes place.
Thus far the argument has primarily rested on the concepts of unlimited atonement and free will, and what those spell out for the first two points of Calvinism. If my argument has been persuasive thus far, it will be easy to see why I don't adhere to the doctrine of Irresistible Grace: I believe in libertarian free will.
*hits a Staples button*
PERSEVERANCE OF THE SAINTS
I will admit right offhand that this point is by far the scariest point of all of them for me. For a very long time I have wanted to find a way to defend a Calvinist view of this doctrine in some iteration or another. I've done everything I can think of, but intellectual honesty forces me to draw conclusions from the premises I've set up above which on the surface are unappealing to me.
If we are to accept that people have free will, and that God doesn't cause anyone to believe, but has provided the sufficient means for salvation such that any who do believe will be saved, then what does it say about how we live that salvation out in our lives? What does a Gospel-centered take on Perseverance of the Saints look like? I'm a little shaky on this myself, so bear with me as I put my addled thoughts down on digital paper.
As I showed above, justification rests squarely upon whether or not an individual believes in the gracious gift God has given us in Jesus. If one does not belief, it is on that unbelief that he is judged. But we also repeatedly see throughout scripture that salvific belief is the kind of belief that is evidenced by a change in behavior for the better. In fact, Paul argues in Romans 6 that this kind of belief, this "dying to sin," prevents us from continuing in sin. It certainly removes sin as a master over us, and through the cross it has no more power over us.
The real questions to address here is whether one can realistically lose that salvific faith, and whether that loss somehow revokes the justification God bestowed previously. If we stop believing, and consequently enter back into sin, does God once again consider us unrighteous? One parable in particular comes to mind:
NET John 15:1-6 "I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He takes away every branch that does not bear fruit in me. He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit. You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. "I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me– and I in him– bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up.Alongside this parable are other scriptures to this effect, such as:
NET Galatians 5:19-21 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!In my attempt to interpret scripture at face value, I must take these passages alongside my treatment of John 3:16-21 above. There is an intimate relationship between faith and works. If one ceases to believe, one is naturally going to resort to the kinds of selfish behaviors that marked their life before belief. And it is apparent that these individuals will not inherit the kingdom. Thus, salvific belief is not the kind of belief I was introduced to as a child, a kind of one-and-done acknowledgement of divine truths as true. To believe is to surrender free will to God until we pass into the kingdom.
I said this was the scary part, and I meant it, in a way. Many will say that this undermines any assurance that we are saved, for at any time in the future one might decide that all of this Jesus business is bologna. I can't see the future, and I'm not convinced that the future even exists as a thing to be known by Omniscient and Almighty God. But the New Testament does have something to say in this regard.
NET 1 John 4:13-18 By this we know that we reside in God and he in us: in that he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God resides in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has in us. God is love, and the one who resides in love resides in God, and God resides in him. By this love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment, because just as Jesus is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.I know that I strive to love others as I love myself, and to love God through loving others. I know that I have the Spirit. I know that I'm not sinless, and might not be before I croak. But I am confident that I am saved, here and now. I also know that I frequently ask for a portion of God's Spirit to be with me throughout my day to help fend off my old tendencies. I have believed, God has justified me, and I am empowered to love my neighbor. To do so is to travel the narrow road leading to the narrow gate. I hope that I've done an adequate job of laying out my beliefs in a comprehensible way.
I hope that I have argued logically. I hope that it invites questions and discussions. And I hope for the resurrection promised to all who believe in Jesus. I conclude with this prayer of Paul.
NET Philippians 1:4-11 I always pray with joy in my every prayer for all of you because of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is right for me to think this about all of you, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel all of you became partners in God's grace together with me. For God is my witness that I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And I pray this, that your love may abound even more and more in knowledge and every kind of insight so that you can decide what is best, and thus be sincere and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.