Now that we have taken a tour through history to see what various influential people have taught regarding free will and election, I would like to add my two cents. Take it or leave it. Embrace it or hate it. Stew on it patiently or blow a gasket. Be silent or comment. It’s all good.
Different Christian denominations have different views on exactly what free will and election mean in reference to salvation, but they either subscribe to Calvinism, Arminianism, or certain elements from each. Personally, I do not understand how people who believe in either eternal torment or annihilation can hold to a combination of Calvinism and Arminianism without suffering from either cognitive dissonance or selective avoidance. It seems they try and fail to make sense of their beliefs, or they don’t try at all.
Does God want everyone to be saved?
Does God want everyone to be saved? Some believers say yes and some say no. The ones who say no, do it very elaborately. For example, John Piper (the guy who Tweeted, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”) says on his website:
By definition, the decision to elect some individuals to salvation necessarily implies the decision not to save those that were not chosen. God ordains not only that some will be rescued from his judgment, but that others will undergo that judgment. This does not mean that someone might really want to be saved but then be rejected because they are on the wrong list. Rather, we are all dead in sin and unwilling to seek God on our own. A true, genuine desire for salvation in Christ is in fact a mark of election, and therefore none who truly come to Christ for salvation will be turned away (John 6:37-40)… And so from this mass of fallen humanity, God chooses to redeem some and leave others.
Now, Piper may have a gift with words, but I know bullshit when I see it. Let’s really consider what Piper has said here. “By definition, the decision to elect some individuals to salvation necessarily implies the decision not to save those that were not chosen,” Piper says. So far, we agree. Moving right along, Piper says, “God ordains not only that some will be rescued from his judgment, but that others will undergo that judgment.” I think that it is important to remind ourselves that when Piper says “judgment,” he means that God is “infinitely wrathful towards them forever,” and “eternal torment,” and “that torment means conscious suffering,” and “it is God-inflicted suffering,” and “it is punishment” and “nobody wants Hell when they know what it is.” Keep this in mind, because the word judgment, in itself, does not adequately describe the ideas Piper attaches to it. Piper says,”This does not mean that someone might really want to be saved but then be rejected because they are on the wrong list.” Here he contradicts himself, because he also teaches that people in Hell will beg God to get out of Hell. If people in Hell are begging God to get out of Hell, why would God not let them out? My answer to this will come later, but according to Piper, they are stuck there forever, because they never accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. But also, according to Piper, God ordained those very people, before time began, to undergo this judgment. Apparently, they were on the “wrong list.” Can you see any other way to make sense of this? I can’t. If I am missing something in Piper’s logic, feel free to point it out to me. Piper says, “…we are all dead in sin and unwilling to seek God on our own.” On this, I agree with Piper. But Piper adds, “A true and genuine desire for salvation in Christ is in fact a mark of election, and therefore none who truly come to Christ for salvation will be turned away.” Here I take issue with what Piper says, because if we look at it from the flip-side, we could say, “a true and genuine LACK OF desire for salvation in Christ is in fact a mark of NON-election.” According to Piper, without all his fancy verbosity, the majority of mankind are predestined NOT to be saved, they lack any desire to be saved, and it is only when they are burning in Hell that they will finally realize what it is they should have desired to be saved FROM. If we consider this along with Piper’s tidy conclusion that “none who truly come to Christ for salvation will be turned away,” we can see that there some serious inconsistency in Piper’s logic, because he only believes this to be true for those who were chosen by God ahead of time to be rescued from judgment. These others who were not chosen were really “turned away” before they were even born, because God did not choose them to be counted among those who would “come to Christ for salvation.” It’s a bunch of bunk. Unholy hokey. Crockadoodledoo.
Yes. God wants to save everyone.
The truth is that God does want everyone to be saved. The believers who claim this truth are immediately faced with a serious problem. If God wants everyone to be saved, then why will everyone not be saved? In attempting to answer this question, some people say that God decided ahead of time who would be saved based on His foreknowledge. He looked into the future, saw who would respond to Him, and picked them to be saved. This is where the argument of free will and human participation in salvation enters. If God chooses according to His foreknowledge that we will respond to Him, then that means it is our decision and our will which determines whether we will be chosen by God. Yet, this is clearly denied in scripture.
- 1 Corinthians 2:14 “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”
- Romans 9:16 “It does not, therefore, depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
- John 10:26 “You do not believe because you are not my sheep.” (Many Christians see this the other way around, that people are not sheep, because they don’t believe. They mix up the cause for the effect.)
- John 6:44 “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them…”
Salvation Belongs to God
This idea that God chooses according to His foreknowledge those who He knows will choose Him back is also a sneaky way for people to claim having a part in their own salvation. Salvation belongs to God, and no one else. A person who says that someone is not saved because they reject God is also saying that people who are saved are saved because they do not reject God. The thing is, everyone has rejected God. If there exists someone who has not rejected God, then we make a paper airplane out of Romans 3:11, “There is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.” If a person is not currently rejecting God, it is because God has worked the miracle of salvation in them. They understand because He did something to make them understand. They seek God, because He revealed to them how appealing He is. They desire to know Him and come to Him because He put that desire there. There is great security in knowing God is completely responsible for salvation, because we can’t screw it up. If any part of it were left to us, we would screw it up. But we still haven’t answered that nagging question…
Who Will Be Saved?
Will God save everyone? If human will and/or effort is taken out of the equation (and I have clearly demonstrated above that it ought to be taken out of the equation) then there can only be two possible reasons that not everyone is saved: 1. God does not want to save everyone. 2. God cannot save everyone. I can already hear the protests, “What about Romans 10:9-13?
If you declare 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 profess your faith and are saved. As Scripture says, “Anyone who believes 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.”
If we are commanded to do something, then it is reasonable to assume that we are actually able to do it; otherwise God is being a bully. This is a reasonable objection. In fact, this is the very objection I raised in the first blog of this series, “Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?” We have a few options, here. We can throw away the idea that salvation belongs entirely to God. (Unacceptable.) We can throw away the idea that God is a bully and assume He must have some very good reason for commanding us to do something we are incapable of doing. (Acceptable.) We can throw away the idea that salvation belongs to us. (Acceptable.) But how can we throw that idea away without contradicting scriptures like Romans 10:9-13? By realizing that not everyone is saved in this age. By letting go of the unscriptural idea that death is the cut-off for salvation. If we can let go of tradition long enough to see what God is doing, then this whole thing starts to make sense. Let me explain how this works by using one common example where tradition has so thoroughly indoctrinated the minds of believers that we completely miss the point….
The Rich Young Ruler
If you read the account of Jesus and the rich young ruler in all three gospels for yourself, then you might see something completely different than what I see. The reason I know this is that I was taught to understand it as being a message about how sad it is that people are not willing to do what it takes to get saved, and that it should be a lesson to us to jump through whatever fiery hoops God puts between us and Heaven. I understand the logic, and I am telling you that the traditional interpretation of this text completely misses the point. Right after Jesus gets done teaching that people must enter into His Reign with the same kind of trust as a little child, a rich man approaches Jesus and asks how he can get this age abiding life Jesus keeps talking about.
Here’s Jesus, the greatest communicator who ever lived. If salvation were about closing a deal, then Jesus would surely be the one who could accomplish it, right? Instead of explaining how he must confess with his mouth and believe in his heart, etc., Jesus tells him to give away his riches and become His disciple. What is this? Salvation by works? Is Jesus teaching heretical doctrine? Is Jesus a failed evangelist? Why doesn’t Jesus talk to this man in the same way He speaks with Nicodemus? (Jesus talks to Nicodemus about regeneration, the saving work God does in a person to bring him/her to life spiritually.) Why doesn’t Jesus make good use of this open door to warn the rich man that if he doesn’t believe then he will go to Hell and burn forever? Doesn’t Jesus care about this guy’s eternal destiny? Does Jesus need to take a few soul-winning small-group classes, so that He can more effectively share the plan of salvation?
No. Jesus knows exactly what He is doing. He is asking the rich young ruler to do the one thing he knows the rich young ruler won’t do. Jesus is brilliant here. His message is clear: Everyone is a slave to his or her own desires. The rich young ruler goes away, bothered. Jesus explains how hard it is for the guy to do what He asked him to do. And just to make sure they know exactly what He is saying, He repeats Himself, saying, “Children, how hard is it to those trusting on the riches to enter into the reign of God!” We each have our own hang-ups, our own desires, our own plans, those desires that are stronger than our desire to enter into His Reign. Jesus purposely pegged the rich man in his weakest spot. Why? To be a bully? No, of course not. He did it to demonstrate that salvation belongs to God alone. We can’t do it for ourselves, He must do it for us. Jesus even indulges in a bit of sarcasm to drive His point home, saying, “It is easier for a camel through the eye of the needle to enter, than for a rich man to enter into the reign of God.”
This next bit is so funny to me. Mark says the people were “astonished beyond measure,” and Matthew says they were “amazed exceedingly.” Jesus is really freaking them out. They asked, “Who, then, can be saved?” Clearly, they understand His message: Everyone is a slave to his or her own desires. But this is not all Jesus has to say about it. Mark says He “looked upon them,” and Matthew says He “earnestly beheld them.” Can you imagine, being totally freaked out by Jesus, who seems to be preaching that no one can be saved, because we are all slaves to our own desires, staring you down? Staring can be considered an invasion of privacy. But there are no secrets with God. How intimidating is that? Unless, of course, you understand that God is on your side. And then Jesus says something that totally changes the mood, now that He has their attention. He says, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.” I think if I were there, I would burst into song or something very dramatic. This is incredible stuff. Left to our own desires, it is impossible for us to be saved. But God is able to do something about this predicament. Before time began, He chose some to believe during this lifetime and continue with Him into the age to come. He did this as part of a plan that includes everyone, just not all at once. (1 Corinthians 15:22-23 “…for even as in Adam all die, so also in the Christ all shall be made alive, and each in his proper order…”)
Jesus explains how this will happen, too. Anyone who suffers in this life for His sake, will also receive benefits in this life that outweigh the suffering. I can attest to this, personally. These last couple of years, by human standards, have been awful for His sake (lost a lot of friends at church, my employment at church, my reputation at church, my position at church in the band and in other activities), but the benefits in this life outweigh the suffering (the friends I have retained I know are true friends, I am enrolled in school full time – something I have wanted to do for a long time, I don’t give a rip about my reputation or position any more, and the whole world is full of beautiful people and full of hope to me now). Anyone who identifies with Him now will reign with Him in the age to come – they will have life that continues through the ages. The question is not whether this one will be saved and this other one won’t, the question is in what order and in what manner will God save us all? We will see that “many first will be last, and the last will be first.” (1 Corinthians 15: 51 “I tell you a secret; we indeed shall not all sleep, and we all shall be changed…”) Jesus conquered sin and death for everyone. Yes, EVERYONE. God wants to save everyone. And what God wants, God gets.
Free will is a tricky subject around which I have yet to fully wrap my brain. Here is what I know for sure. God is sovereign. He has made it very clear that salvation belongs to Him; it is accomplished by Him alone, in His own time, and in His own manner. If there is free will, it can have no part in salvation. A person is regenerated (born again) first, and then he/she believes, repents, etc., as a direct result of what God has already accomplished in him or her. The blood of Christ was poured out for the sin (singular “sin” meaning we are all counted in this together for both guilt and for rescue) of the world, and He accomplished His mission to seek and save the lost. He is the Good Shepherd Who leaves the ninety-nine and searches until He finds that lost one, never giving up on anyone. He was slain before the foundation of the world, “it is finished” 2000 years ago, and “He has appeared once and for all at the end of the ages” as our High Priest “who always lives to intercede for us.”