The United States Supreme Court has been busy over the last two weeks, handing down a number of important decisions. During that time span, the justices have unanimously agreed on 12 of 16 decisions. It is good to see the justices—both left and right, on occasion—can look at our founding document and agree that there are some things which are so plainly clear that even people at both ends of the political spectrum can agree.
The same holds true for Christians and Scripture. Regardless of our denomination, we approach the Bible and recognize there are some doctrines so plainly taught they transcend denominational lines, like the Virgin birth, the deity of Christ, and the Resurrection. When that is done, it is encouraging for it speaks to essential Christian unity.
But there is another crucial teaching that seems rather clear to some but not so clear to others. I am referring here to the divide that separates those who call themselves “Calvinists” (or some variation thereof) against those who prefer the moniker “Arminian” (or some variation thereof).
I sometimes wonder how Calvinists and Arminians can read the same Bible but come to such radically different conclusions.
As one who firmly embraces the doctrines of grace, let me offer some personal observations on this topic that I have encountered over the course of forty years of ministry. These are in no way intended to be all-inclusive. Such a grand topic as this can hardly be summarized adequately in such a sort span, so I will proceed with caution.
First, Arminians read the Bible with a view to protecting the glory of God. In other words, they do not want God to be accused of being “unfair,” “unjust,” or “unloving,” and so they are quick to dismiss or reinterpret any passage of Scripture that speaks of God’s electing love. But they do so because they sincerely believe the doctrines of election and predestination assault the integrity of God and diminish His majesty. Passages that speak of God’s special love and favor are minimized, such as Romans 9:13-16:
“As it is written, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated. What shall we say then? Is there unrighteousness with God? God forbid. For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.”
Second, Arminians are committed to exalting the idea of human free will. The argument is set forth that if individuals are not free to choose God then they are mere robots and, consequently, are without moral accountability. In the fourth century AD, the British monk Pelagius (c. 390-418) advanced this idea against Augustine and declared that if God gave a command then the command itself implies the ability to obey. So, for Pelagius, humans could keep the moral law of God and please him apart from divine grace. Arminians would rightly condemn this idea but advance a softer view of this idea with the notion of prevenient grace, an idea that essentially says God puts people back in a morally neutral state where a person can either chose right or wrong, good or bad.
The biblical problem with the Arminian view of free will is that the natural man is not viewed as being in bondage to sin, a slave to the law of sin and death. And nowhere is this idea of prevenient grace found in Scripture. The will of man cannot chose what is right and proper without God first making him or her able to do so. The Bible says that Jesus“came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, 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” (John 1:11-13). The helpless condition, the inability of the will of man to change his natural heart was noticed by the prophet Jeremiah. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil”(Jer. 13:23). So, indeed, people exercise their free will every day. The only problem, however, is that the free will inevitably leads to the wrong choices without God’s intervention, without God first changing the heart.
Third, Arminians sometimes argue from a false premise. On more than one occasion, and from more than one person, I have heard an Arminian say that election cannot possible be true for if a father had several children he would not love three of them over the other two. The problem with that analogy is that it fails to consider that the universal Fatherhood of God loving each person in the same manner is not a biblical imagery. Jesus said to certain individuals, “You are of your father the devil and the lusts of your father ye will do”(John 8:44). Moreover, Jesus made a distinction between those whom the Father had given to Him, and those who had not been given to Him in a special way. “All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out” (John 6:37).
In contrast to the Arminian, the Calvinist concedes that there are difficult facets to the essence of God which are challenging to reconcile intellectually. Theodicy is a deep and mysterious part of Christian theology as the attempt is made to answer the question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil.
In the end, it takes more faith and grace to believe in God as He is revealed than as we want Him to be. But love God we must and do. Therefore, when the Bible reveals that God will have mercy on whom He will have mercy, and will show compassion to whom He wills, the Calvinist simply bows before the sovereignty of God and rejoices that he has been given grace to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
In contrast to the Arminian, the Calvinist believes in the bondage of the will, not its freedom. In his work, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, John Calvin argues that the law serves to demonstrate a person’s lack of ability to please God and impels the sinner to run to Christ for mercy. Any person who has struggled to be good, and decent, and holy knows how helpless the will is and how much in bondage to sin it remains, apart from the saving power of Christ. The great redemptive work of Jesus is to set the prisoners to sin free. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord”(Luke 4:18-19).
Finally, the Calvinist begins (after we establish God’s absolute sovereignty over every facet of life from the smallest particle onward) from the biblical premise that souls are born physically alive but spiritually dead. The plight of the natural man is desperate, because our first parents plunged each and every one of us into a state of sin and misery. That is the inheritance we were left with. So, every soul must be born again for “that which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6).
So what are Christians to do with the seemingly irreconcilable differences? It is as simple as this: return to God’s Word with an open heart and humble spirit and submit to His truth, wherever that leads. And when we do, we might just get that unanimous decision when it is least expected—just like the Supreme Court did.