Willing to Believe

As an old friend says, regarding paradoxical subject matter, this will “scramble your eggs” or as someone else said (I can’t remember who), it is a “logical pretzel.”  Free Will + God’s Sovereignty = Confused People.  Why is that?  What’s the problem?  The Introduction of R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will says,

How we understand the will of man touches heavily on our view of our humanity and God’s character… Any view of the human will that destroys the biblical view of human responsibility is seriously defective.  Any view of the human will that destroys the biblical view of God’s character is even worse.  The debate will affect our understanding of God’s righteousness, sovereignty, and grace.  All of these are vital to Christian theology.  If we ignore these issues or regard them as trivial, we greatly demean the full character of God as revealed in Scripture.  What follows is an historical reconnaissance of the debate over free will as it has played itself out in the history of Christianity.

Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins, touches on the subject of free will, and this section is the only one which caused me to raise my eyebrows.  My current understanding of free will is a little tricky at the moment.  I’ll share it with you in the conclusion of this blog series.  Bell affirms Jesus’ statement, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” And Bell clarifies, “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.”  R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe, explores the concept of free will from almost every possible angle.  I would like to take you on a quick tour through the book, and perhaps you will take the time to read it for yourself.  Each section of the book begins with an insightful quotation, which I will include.

Introduction

Here was the crucial issue: whether God is the author, not merely of justification, but also of faith… – J.I. Packer and O.R. Johnston

The introduction touches on the Babylonian captivity, compares it to believers living in a “secular” world, and postulates that the secular world is becoming increasingly hostile to biblical Christianity.  This may be true in some circles, but I don’t see this happening in the people with whom I interact.  Usually, hostility proves to be a result of misconceptions about God.  Sproul’s introduction also includes a brief synopsis of regeneration and faith in the Calvinist versus Arminian views and a brief explanation of free will and election.  When I began studying church history a few years ago and sharing some of the information I found with different Christian friends, I was very surprised to find that many of them had never heard of “election” (also known as predestination), Calvinism, or Arminianism.  This is not to say that they did not hold to Calvinism or Arminianism; they were simply not aware of the fact that they had been influenced in one direction or the other, or that there was foundational inconsistency in trying to ride the fence between the two views.  While many of these believers were aware that they had been “chosen before the foundation of the world,” they never stopped to consider the idea that if there is a group of chosen, there must also, using basic rules of logic, be a group that is not chosen.  This is why the doctrine of election is so closely tied with the free will controversy.  If God has chosen, before time began, who will believe, then what, if anything, does free will have to do with salvation?  What if God chooses someone who doesn’t choose Him back?  What if some people choose God, but God does not choose them?  These are the topics Sproul’s book explores.

Chapter One: “We Are Capable of Obedience”

We, who have been instructed through the grace of Christ and born again to better manhood, …ought to be better than those who were before the law, and better also than those who were under the law. – Pelagius

Pelagius‘ main argument (in Sproul’s words) is that “God never commands what is impossible for man to perform.”  Pelagius asks, (in Sproul’s words) “Is the assistance of grace necessary for a human being to obey God’s commands?  Or can those commands be obeyed without such assistance?”  According to Pelagius, God is good and just, and if God were not good and just, then God would not be God.  Since God is good, then everything He creates must be good, too.  And if everything God creates is good, then there is no inherent corruption in man.  If man sins, it is because he chooses to sin.  Likewise, if man does not sin, it is because he chooses to not sin.  Free will and the ability to reason are gifts of God’s grace.  When Adam sinned, he exercised his free will, and he was not coerced.  Natural or spiritual death are not passed down from one generation to the next because of Adam; people die because they they are mortal, and Adam would have died whether he sinned or not, because Adam was created mortal.  Furthermore, Pelagius asserts that (in Sproul’s words), “God would not usher creatures into a world laden with a burden of sin that was not their own.”  Pelagius sees no cause and effect connection between Adam’s sin and our sin.  In fact, Pelagius sees each person as a perfectly new creation who is corrupted because of “the long custom of vices, which has infected us from childhood,” and since the individual is in the habit of sinning, the will is gradually and increasingly weakened.  This is where the grace of God is introduced in Pelagius’ view; it “assists us in our pursuit of perfection.”  Pelagius even suggests that some people have attained perfection in this way.

Chapter Two: “We Are Incapable of Obedience”

It was by the evil use of his free-will that man destroyed both it and himself. – Augustine

Augustine asks, (in Sproul’s words) “How does a creature who is evil recover from this condition and become good?  How does a creature who is alienated from God and indisposed toward God find his way back to God?”  Pelagius’ and Augustine’s views are very different.  Augustine says in his work, The City of God, “The will, therefore, is then truly free, when it is not the slave of vices and sins.  Such was it given us by God; and this being lost by its own fault, can only be restored by Him who was able at first to give it.”  In creation, Adam and Eve had the ability to both sin or not sin, and the first sin introduced into the human experience was pride.  Part of the punishment for sin is that all of their offspring (that’s us) are born into sin and suffer the consequences of the original sin.  Adam, in effect, chose and acted on behalf of the entire human race.  The free will of humanity was damaged in the fall, as well as the ability to understand truth.  God withdraws grace from humanity, so that we no longer have the desire to do good or to restrain our desire for evil.

In attempting to explain free will, Augustine contradicts himself, asserting that there is “always within us a free will, but it is not always good.  For it is either free from righteousness when it serves sin, and then it is evil, or else it is free from sin when it serves righteousness, and then it is good.”  Yet Augustine also asserts, “When man by his own free-will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost.”  To Augustine, there is a difference between free will and liberty.  His understanding of free will is “the ability to choose without external constraint.”  The sinner is free in one sense, because the sinner can do what the sinner wants to do.  The problem is that the sinner never really wants to do what is right.  Sproul says the sinner is “a slave to his own evil passions, a slave to his own corrupted will.”  The only way to escape this condition is through the grace of God.  Augustine says that the sinner does not choose to believe God for salvation in order to be liberated from his own corrupted condition, because this would require the individual to choose what is right (in this case, “what is right” is choosing to believe God for salvation), and this is something the individual is incapable of doing.  He or she always chooses against it because he or she never wants it.  God must provide the individual with the desire for good in order for the individual to make even one choice in the right direction.

So, what do you think of what you have seen so far?  Is there any truth in what Pelagius teaches?  Is there any truth in the which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg scenario Augustine teaches? How does Scripture compare to the ideas of these two men present?  Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Coming soon…

Chapter Three: “We Are Capable of Cooperating”

Chapter Four: “We Are in Bondage to Sin”

Chapter Five: “We Are Voluntary Slaves”

Chapter Six: “We Are Free to Believe”

Chapter Seven: “We Are Inclined to Sin”

Chapter Eight: “We Are Not Depraved by Nature”

Chapter Nine: “We Are Able to Believe”

Conclusion – My current views on free will as it relates to election, salvation, and the day to day decisions of believers and not-yet-believers.

 

 

This is the second of a series of blogs about R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will.  If you haven’t read the first one, “Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?” you really ought to.  It covers some foundational questions about free will.  Moving right along…

Chapter Three: “We Are Capable of Cooperating”

“If anyone says that man’s free will [when] moved and aroused by God, by assenting to God… in no way cooperates… [and] that it cannot refuse its assent if it wishes… let him be anathema!” – Council of Trent

Ah yes, the Council of Trent and their favorite word, Anathema!  (Not the band from Liverpool.)  Anathema is church-speak for excommunication.  Keep in mind as you read this that over 1000 years have passed from the time of Pelagius and Augustine.  The church has been through the Dark Ages.  The Council of Trent takes place not too long after Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses and the Protestant Reformation started spreading like wildfire.  The Roman Catholic Church felt that it needed to regroup, so they met 25 times over the course of 18 years and decided among other things, Tradition + Scripture = The Rule of Faith, condemned Protestant “heresies,” and affirmed the Latin Vulgate as the official Bible translation.  The Protestants were guaranteed safe passage (in other words, they wouldn’t be killed going to and from) for Protestants who wanted to attend the church council meetings.  They were allowed to participate in discussion, but they were not allowed to vote.  This is the backdrop for what you are about to read.

Semi-Pelagianism

While Pelagius asserts humanity has the ability to obey God, Augustine asserts that humanity is incapable of obedience.  Many people, unable to figure this thing out, decided on what is called Semi-Pelagianism, a sort of hybrid doctrine.  The Council of Trent, according to Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz, “both reaffirmed the church’s condemnation of Pelagianism and retreated from a clear condemnation of Semi-Pelagianism.  In the sixth session of the council this declaration was made, “If anyone says that after the sin of Adam man’s free will was lost and destroyed, or that it is a thing only in name, indeed a name without reality, a fiction introduced into the Church by Satan, let him be anathema.”  For some reason, I have a hard time punctuating anathema with a period.  It really feels like it needs an explanation point, doesn’t it?  Anathema!

Chapter Four: “We Are in Bondage to Sin”

“Free-will without God’s grace is not free at all, but is the permanent prisoner and bondslave of evil, since it cannot turn itself to good.” – Martin Luther

Martin Luther considered his most important book to be The Bondage of the Will, “because it spoke to issues that he regarded as being the […] very heart of the church.”  He even went so far as to say that anything he wrote besides this and a children’s catechism could be tossed out.  Sproul explains,

To the chess player these are contingencies, events he cannot predict with certainty.  We speak of a contingency plan, to which we will turn if our original plan does not work as we hoped. […] In his perfection God knows all things perfectly. […]  He is not a Great Chess Player who must wait to see what we will do, but he knows absolutely what we will do before we do it.

If God has decided ahead of time how everything happens, who believes, who does not believe, then free will is more than irrelevant, it is non- existent.  It is with this in mind that Luther claims, “This bombshell knocks ‘free-will’ flat, and utterly shatters it…”  Luther sees no middle ground at all in this argument.  Salvation belongs completely to God, because a person can’t choose to believe or obey.  God’s grace isn’t mere assistance for salvation, it is necessity.

Is God a Bully?

I started in the first blog asking, “Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?”  Let’s suppose for argument’s sake that we cannot obey God or believe God unless He intervenes and causes it to happen.  If you take this idea in combination with the idea that God chooses only some to believe then the implications are huge.  Why would God command people to believe, knowing all along that they can’t?  Is He rubbing our own weakness in our faces?  This is what Erasmus infers.  Luther comes against Erasmus’ idea, saying that we must consider God’s character.  God’s cosmic game of nanee-nanee-boo-boo-stick-your-head-in-doo-doo is a ludicrous assertion.  So is there any other reason that God would command us to do what He knows we are completely incapable of doing?  Luther says there is a perfectly good reason, that is, “God is trying us, that by His law he may bring us to a knowledge of our impotence.”

If the objective is to make us aware of the fact that we cannot save ourselves, then this whole thing makes a little more sense.  God is teaching us, not being a bully.  This should be a relief, but we still have a huge problem that has yet to be addressed.  If Luther is correct, that we are in bondage to sin, and so much so, that we cannot obey God’s commands, and we can’t even believe for salvation unless He first places that desire to believe in us, then all of us are in big trouble.  So far in this adventure through R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will, it is implied that God will place the desire to believe in only some of us.

Your Feedback, Please

What do you say, reader?  Does God do most of the work in salvation as long as we cooperate with Him?  Do we have any part at all in our own salvation?  Or are we completely helpless and at God’s mercy?  And what do you think about this idea that God has chosen only some to be saved?  Did He choose the ones who He knew ahead of time would choose Him back?  If this is the case, then why does Jesus explicitly say, “You did not choose me, I chose you”?  Why does the Bible say that we love Him because He first loved us?  If His loving us and choosing us is what causes us to love Him, why would He only choose a few?

For anyone who feels very upset by all of this, please understand that the content of this particular blog (as well as the next one in this series) could be compared to walking out of the movie theater while the girl is still tied to the railroad tracks, and the good guy is being chased by a bunch of bad guys with guns.  It always looks hopeless until the last 5 or 10 minutes.  You know how it is.  This is not the end of the story.  There is much more to be said about Who God is and what God does.  Unfortunately, there is also 1500+ years worth of religious bullshit to clear out of the way as well.  Don’t walk out of the theater prematurely.

Coming soon…

Chapter Five: “We Are Voluntary Slaves” & Chapter Six: “We Are Free to Believe” (These are the big two, in my opinion, because they hold such influence over modern Christian thinking – the views of Calvin and Arminius.) See you then.

This is the third of a series of blogs about R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will.  If you haven’t read the first one, “Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?,” or the second one, “A Great Chess Player,” you really ought to do so.  They cover some foundational questions about free will.  This blog will review Chapter Five: “We Are Voluntary Slaves” & Chapter Six: “We Are Free to Believe” (These are the big two, in my opinion, because they hold such influence over modern Christian thinking – the views of Calvin and Arminius.)  Calvin and Arminius both had spiritual insight, unfortunately, they both came to erroneous conclusions in their thinking, which resulted in the teaching of partial truths.

Chapter Five: “We Are Voluntary Slaves”

When the will is enchained as the slave of sin, it cannot make a movement towards goodness, far less steadily pursue it. – John Calvin

Two main concerns that prompt John Calvin to write about free will are first, that people ought not ignore this important subject, and second, that people ought to give God honor for their redemption.  I doubt that any person who recognizes their redemption would admit to keeping some of God’s glory for themselves, but they do, nonetheless.  They just don’t realize that this is what they are doing.  How do they do this?  Good question.  Glad you asked.  Hopefully, the answer will become obvious to you as you continue reading.

In Calvin’s studies, he recognizes a pattern in human philosophy, that man in his intellectual ability is able to live a virtuous life.  I can understand why people might believe this to be true, since humanity is capable of distinguishing behaviors that either benefit or harm others.  Although we may find cultural variation in the ideas of right and wrong, we are still aware that there is such a thing as right and wrong.  Since we possess such knowledge, it follows that we ought to be able to put it to use.  But we don’t.  Why is that?  Various reasons, of course, but the main reason is, if we are really honest with ourselves, we don’t feel like it.  Our intellect becomes a tool for evil because we use it to create elaborate excuses about why we ought to be permitted to go against our internal moral compass, that we have some exceptional circumstance or need or whatever.

The trouble is that one part of you is on His side and really agrees with His disapproval of human greed and trickery and exploitation. You may want Him to make an exception in your own case, to let you off this one time; but you know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests that sort of behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. That is the terrible fix we are in. If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless. But if it is, then we are making ourselves enemies to that goodness every day, and are not in the least likely to do any better tomorrow, and so our case is hopeless again. We cannot do without it, and we cannot do with it. – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Can You See the Reign of God?

Calvinism, in many ways, is regurgitated Augustinianism.  But since Calvin is closer to us in history, his name usually accompanies any serious discussion on free will and election.  Calvin recognizes that human beings have the ability to reason, but he points out that our reasoning is not sound.  Our capacity to think about spiritual things has been severely damaged by sin.  Calvin cites John 3:3 where Jesus says, “If any one may not be born from above, he is not able to see the reign of God,” and claims (in Sproul’s words), “Regeneration is a requirement for a person to be liberated from the bondage of sin.”  If this is true, then the obvious follow-up questions are, what is regeneration, and how does one go about getting it?

Regeneration

Regeneration is the Greek word “palingenesia,” which is a compound word meaning “birth” and “again.”  Just as a person is born physically, a person is born spiritually.  You’ve heard people call themselves “born again,” and this is the origin of that word combination.  In natural birth, the baby does not get to decide whether to be born.  Can the same be true of spiritual birth?

Truth is truth, wherever one finds it, even from the mouth of the Arch-villian of the Christian Universalism, himself, Matt Slick.  He writes in his article about the basic tenets of Calvinism, known by the acronym,  TULIP,

Man’s heart is evil (Mark 7:21-23) and sick (Jer. 17:9). Man is a slave of sin (Rom. 6:20). He does not seek for God (Rom. 3:10-12). He cannot understand spiritual things (1 Cor. 2:14). He is at enmity with God (Eph. 2:15). And, is by nature a child of wrath (Eph. 2:3). The Calvinist asks the question, “In light of the scriptures that declare man’s true nature as being utterly lost and incapable, how is it possible for anyone to choose or desire God?” The answer is, “He cannot. Therefore God must predestine.”

And according to Calvin, unregenerate humanity has no free will:

…man, by making a bad use of free will, lost both himself and it.  Again, that the will being overome by the corruption into which it fell, nature has no liberty.  Again, that no will is free which is subject to lusts which conquer and enchain it… no man of himself will ever be able to come to Christ, but God must first approach him by his Spirit; and hence it follows that all are not “drawn,” but that God bestows this grace on those whom he has elected.  True, indeed, as to the kind of “drawing,” it is not violent, so as to compel a man by force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant.  It is a false and profane assertion, therefore, that none are drawn but those who are willing to be “drawn,” as if man made himself obedient to God by his own efforts; for the willingness with which men follow God is what they already have from himself, who has formed their hearts to obey him.

(I am not going to review Sproul’s interpretation of the teaching of Paul from this chapter until the conclusion of this series, because it is in Paul’s writing I find the answer to the centuries old debate on free will and election.)

Is Grace Irresistable?

This raises the question about free will that I mentioned earlier, that is, what if God chooses someone to believe who doesn’t want to believe?  In order to explore this further, I am about to quote Francis Turretin, a guy who is so very specific in his study on free will and election, that he can make the casual reader’s head spin.  I promise you that what Turretin says makes sense to Turretin, and if you really take the time to slowly think it through, one thought at a time, then you will understand what Turretin is talking about, even if you disagree with him:

…if God not only appeals to and exhorts, but himself works (energei) in us; not only works the power but the very act of willing and believing, who do not see that his action is irresistible which necessarily produces its own effect?  For if man can always resist or can actually resist, this would undoubtedly be done because the will willed to resist.  And yet how can the will will to resist (i.e., be unwilling to admit grace, in which God efficaciously works to will)?

Sproul sums it up nicely, saying, “For Turretin, as for Calvin and Luther, the ‘irresistibility’ of grace is what makes it so gracious.  Irresistible grace denies the converted sinner any basis for boasting… This grace underlies the affirmation that, in the final analysis, salvation is of the Lord.”

Chapter Six: “We Are Free to Believe”

And just when you think you have this whole free will and election thing figured out, along comes Arminius sticking bubble gum in the logical gears…

All unregenerate persons have freedom of will, and a capability of resisting the Holy Spirit, of rejecting the proffered grace of God… and of not opening to Him who knocks at the door of the heart; and these things they can actually do. – Arminius

If one examines the teachings of Arminius, one might at first assume that Arminius actually agrees with Calvin, but eventually the student will discover that Arminius differs in what Sproul calls the “Point of Departure.”  Calvinism says that everyone who God calls responds to that call.  It is that irresistible grace idea I covered a few paragraphs back.  Arminius, on the other hand, says that grace is not a sufficient condition for salvation.  In other words, God’s grace provides everything a person needs in order to be saved, but the individual has the ability to resist that grace.  This is probably the most popular view in Evangelical circles, even for those who don’t want to admit it.  Let me put it this way.  If a believer says that a person is saved because the person chooses to believe (instead of choosing to not believe), then that person subscribes to Arminianism.  For Arminius, grace makes a person able to believe but not willing.  He compares God’s grace to money that is extended and placed in the open hand of a beggar.  The open hand represents the willingness of the individual to receive salvation.

Coming soon, the final three chapters.  Chapter Seven: “We are Inclined to Sin,” Chapter Eight: “We Are Not Depraved by Nature,” and Chapter Nine: “We Are Able to Believe.”  If it seems as though this is an argument that keeps going in circles, you’re right.  It is the same old arguments, brought to the table again after the Dark Ages ended.  And, unfortunately, you’re also wrong.  There are nuances in each of these theologian’s interpretations of scripture that differ from one another.  These tiny differences really do matter, if the eternal destiny of the majority of mankind or the Sovereignty and Righteousness of God hangs in the balance.  Chapter Seven features Jonathan Edwards, who is most known for delivering the terrifying sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Chapter Eight features Charles Finney, a difficult to define evangelist.  Chapter Nine features Lewis Chafer, a Dispensationalist (I’ll define Dispensationalist in the next blog).  Until then, check out this vid – a mock dialogue between Calvin and Arminius, Paul Tells Calvin and Arminius the Way It Is.

 

This is the fourth of a series of blogs about R.C. Sproul’s book, Willing to Believe: The Controversy Over Free Will.  If you haven’t read the first, “Does God Command Us to Do the Impossible?,” the second, “A Great Chess Player,” or the third, “Volunteer for Slavery,”  you really ought to do so.  They cover some foundational questions about free will.  This blog will review Chapter Seven: “We Are Inclined to Sin,” Chapter Eight: “We Are Not Depraved by Nature,” and the final chapter, Chapter Nine: “We Are Able to Believe.”

Chapter Seven: “We Are Inclined to Sin”

“If the case be such indeed, that all mankind are by nature in a state of total ruin… then, doubtless, the great salvation by Christ stands in direct relation to this ruin, as the remedy to the disease.” – Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards, is most known for delivering the terrifying sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  While Sproul does not examine this sermon, I think it is important that readers understand that Edwards view of God affects his view of free will and election.  In another blog, “Volunteer for Slavery,” I stated:

In Calvin’s studies, he recognizes a pattern in human philosophy, that man in his intellectual ability is able to live a virtuous life.  I can understand why people might believe this to be true, since humanity is capable of distinguishing behaviors that either benefit or harm others.  Although we may find cultural variation in the ideas of right and wrong, we are still aware that there is such a thing as right and wrong.  Since we possess such knowledge, it follows that we ought to be able to put it to use.  But we don’t.  Why is that?  Various reasons, of course, but the main reason is, if we are really honest with ourselves, we don’t feel like it.  Our intellect becomes a tool for evil because we use it to create elaborate excuses about why we ought to be permitted to go against our internal moral compass, that we have some exceptional circumstance or need or whatever.

Nobody’s Perfect

Edwards explores the question of why we fail to meet basic moral standards, by concentrating on how it is that society became corrupt in the first place.  Sproul explains of Edward’s studies, “Why can we find no societies in which the prevailing influence is to virtue rather than vice?  Why does not society influence us to maintain our natural innocence?”  Edwards explains the human condition using the analogy of a heavy stone, saying, “It is the nature of a stone to be heavy.”  But if we were to place this stone in outer space, it could no longer be described as heavy.  Edwards compares humanity to the stone placed in an environment where, by our vary nature in that environment, we “have an universal effectual tendency to sin and ruin in this world.”

Is There a Difference Between Will and Desire?

Edwards defines the will as “the mind choosing” and asserts that the mind never chooses against desire, nor does desire choose against the mind.  In the case where a person desires to do what is right and chooses to do the opposite, Edwards says that the person is choosing according to the strongest motive.  In this case the desire to wrong proves to be stronger than the desire to do what is right.  According to Sproul, “Edwards further argues that the strongest motive is that which appears most ‘good’ or ‘pleasing’ to the mind.”  (Here, “good” is used in the sense of what is pleasing, not what is moral.  For example, one might consider telling a white lie as “good” for a particularly difficult situation.)  Because of our “moral inability,” Edwards says, we cannot NOT be free (notice the double negative there, i.e. the will is free), however the will is always free to act according to the strongest desire, and nothing else.  Sproul concludes, “Like Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, Edwards argues that man is free in that he can and does choose what he desires or is inclined to choose.  But man lacks the desire for Christ and the things of God until God creates in his soul a positive inclination for these things.”

Chapter Eight: “We Are Not Depraved by Nature”

“If the nature is sinful, in such a sense that action must necessarily be sinful, then sin in action must be a calamity, and can be no crime… This cannot be a crime, since the will has nothing to do with it. – Charles Finney

In the Billy Graham crusades, hundreds and sometimes thousands of people make “decisions for Christ.”  In many churches, a weekly “invitation” time is given where people can “choose Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.”  Perhaps people are asked to raise their hands while everyone else has their eyes closed.  Or maybe everyone has their eyes open, and people who really mean it must be brave enough to stand up or walk to the front of the church.  If you think that this has been the practice in Christianity since the early church, think again.  It started not that long ago with Finney whose most famous sermon is entitled, “Sinners Bound to Change Their Own Hearts.”  Believers everywhere became convinced that evangelism is like a sales pitch where salvation is closing the deal.  Did I mention that Finney was a lawyer?  Convince people, prove your point, demand a verdict – I can see how this approach might make sense to a lawyer.  In another blog, “Volunteer for Slavery,” the subject of regeneration (from which the words “born again” come) was introduced and explained.  Finney is very clear in his belief that regeneration is a direct result of the choice of the individual, a simple change of preference.  One day the person sees God as the enemy, the next day the he/she reconsiders and decides to make peace with God through Christ.  Just like that – Pelagianism is reintroduced to the church.

Chapter Nine: “We Are Able to Believe”

“Though divine persuasion be limitless, it still remains persuasion, and so when a decision is secured for Christ in the individual he exercises his own will apart from even a shadow of constraint.” – Lewis Chafer

Chafer was a Dispensationalist and the former president of what is now known as the Dallas Theological Seminary.  In case any readers are not familiar with Dispensationalism, it is the idea that God relates to people in different ways for specific time periods (ages), one after the other, with each age demonstrating some new revelation about God and His Plan of the Ages.  There is much disagreement as to exactly what that plan entails or how it all happens, but that is another blog for another day.  Today I will focus on what Chafer brings to the table in this examination of free will and election.  His ideas helped bring about a generation of people who consider themselves “four-point” Calvinists.  (Calvinism can be boiled down to five basic points, which are most easily remembered using the acronym, TULIP.  The four-point Calvinists disagree with one point, that is, the “L” in TULIP, which stands for “Limited Atonement.”)  The crux of the matter is that Chafer says a person has faith first, and then the person is born again.  According to Chafer, regeneration takes place as God’s response to the individual’s faith.  For Chafer, the sin nature acquired in physical birth and the divine nature acquired in spiritual birth are nothing alike.  He says, “No comparison may be drawn between the acquiring a human nature and the acquiring of the divine nature.”  Chafer could be considered a three-point Calvinist since some of his teachings conflict with the “I” in TULIP, “Irresistible Grace.”  He says that God’s call to the elect is not irresistible, but that it is always effective.  In other words, it isn’t that the elect CAN’T resist, it is that they DON’T resist, because God is so convincing.

Coming soon…

For the final blog in this series, I’ll share with you my own current understanding of free will and election.  I spent over a decade being taught and learning half truths in the institution of church from people who meant well, and were doing the best they knew how, but much like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day, don’t recognize some very foundational ideas about Who God is and what God does.  That is why they crucified His Son.  If you would like to learn more about this, watch “Officially Rejected by the Church.”  Anyhow, once I realized that there was a great difference between the body of Christ and this thing that hijacked the word “church,” I decided to start over, critically examining everything I had been taught.  I am following the instructions that hold true for all believers, “test everything, hold on to what is good,” and I am still in the process of determining what is junk and what is treasure.  You are invited to join me in this process.

 

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

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.”