God’s Sovereignty and Free Will – Part 1

There’s an in-house debate in the church over God’s sovereignty and man’s free will that is key to how you understand the doctrine of salvation. On the one side are Calvinists. They hold a very strong opinion of God’s sovereignty, and believe that man really has no ability to make free choices. God’s grace and salvation is purely one-sided. Before the foundations of the world God made a unilateral decision about who He would have mercy on and save–specifically choosing some and passing over others. There’s no reason given for why God chooses some, other than He is God, and sovereign over all. On the other side are the Arminians, who believe that man can make a free choice whether or not he will accept God’s gift of grace through faith.

There are brilliant theologians on both sides who will cite scripture passages in defense of their positions. As for me, I don’t specifically call myself an Arminian (or a brilliant theologian), but there are several reasons that I feel Calvinism is not supported by Scripture.

Exegetical Explanations

There’s a concept when studying scripture called “exegesis”, which is a Greek word literally meaning “leading out” or pulling out the meaning of the text. One exegetical principal, for example, is looking at the text in its immediate context (passage, chapter, book) as well as comparing it to other books of Scripture. You also need to look at the text relative to the culture and time it was written, and the genre of literature (historical, poetry, prophetic, etc). One thing we know from Scripture is that God is unchanging. He is consistent, and does not contradict himself, so if we see what at first glance looks like an apparent contradiction, we need to dig further to find an explanation.

God is not insincere

One of the main reasons I don’t subscribe to Calvinism is that I believe God has a sincere desire that all men would turn to him. There are a some things in Scripture that can be plainly understood–even by a child. This is one of them. Another principal when interpreting Scripture is accepting the plain meaning of the text where appropriate. There are many other passages that are harder to understand. What do you do with those? You have to interpret those passages that are less clear in light of passages that are plainly understood. You don’t do the reverse, and look at the clear passages through the lens of a doctrine that was formed around the unclear ones.

It is plainly clear when looking at the totality of Scripture that God created man to have a relationship with him, and that it is his desire that all men would turn to him.

…who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. 1 Timothy 2:4

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” 2 Peter 3:9

Since this is plainly clear, if another passage seems to conflict with this notion, then it must be looked at carefully to see how else it might be interpreted.

Calvinists point to passages like Romans 8:28-30, which says that God has predestined us and called us to be saved, and Romans 9:14-26, where Paul reminds us that it is God’s choice to have mercy on whom he has mercy. But, these ideas do not mean that God made a unilateral and arbitrary decision to choose only some individuals for salvation. We have to look at this in light of our knowledge about God from all of Scripture, including His desire  that all men would be saved.

Also, if we look at the context of the entire book of Romans, it’s clear why Paul is making the point he is. He is writing to Jews in Rome who believed that salvation was reserved for them based on their ethnic heritage (i.e. they were descendants of Abraham). They were upset because they believed that they alone were God’s chosen people, and did not like the idea that gentiles could think the same. Yes, in Romans 9, Paul is making a point that God can have mercy on whom He has mercy. And how does God determine who it is He will show His mercy to? Paul is clear about that. It is faith in God that makes one a decedent of Abraham, not whether one is born a Jew. It is faith that saves, and God’s mercy is available to all who call on Him. In essence, Paul is saying that only God is sovereign, and who are the Jews in Rome to argue with that.

This is why he later says in Romans 10:8-13:

“The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him, for, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Calvinists will say here that man cannot possibly have the faith to choose God unless God chooses him or her first. We are so totally depraved that we would never turn to God on our own. While there is some agreement here, Calvinists see faith as something meritorious–as a work, so to speak. They believe that God chooses you, and the Holy Spirit must first regenerate your heart before you can have faith. Only then do you have the ability to have faith and accept God’s gift of grace. In fact, under Calvinism, it’s a foregone conclusion. If God chose you before the foundation of the earth, He will regenerate your heart–you cannot resist. If God chooses you, you are saved, period. All others not chosen are hopelessly dead in their sins, and unable to choose God. They are unable to muster the faith to believe in God, even if they hear the Gospel again and again.

Arminians also believe that man on his own would never freely choose to follow God. They acknowledge that the Holy Spirit has a role in salvation, and must convict us about our need for God and then draw us to Him. However, they do not believe that faith is a work, and their conclusion is clearly supported in Scripture. Paul always opposes faith and works. Faith is merely the grateful acceptance of God’s mercy. It is not something meritorious that we do, and we cannot boast about it. Another difference is that the Arminians believe we have the ability to resist the Holy Spirit. Again, this is supported by scripture if you believe that God’s general call to mankind is sincere. God wants everyone to be saved, but clearly not all are, so man must be able to resist the Holy Spirit. A specific example from Scripture is the interesting imagery Stephen uses when he calls those he is preaching to “stiff-necked” because they “always resist the Holy Spirit”. (Acts 7:51-53).

This brings up a few more questions. If God is truly sovereign, then how can man have the ability resist God’s will? Also, doesn’t Ephesians 2:8 state that even faith is a gift from God, and not something that we can do on our own? I’ll cover these two questions next time.

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