Throughout the history of the Christian church, there have been disagreements among Christians about all kinds of different issues and doctrines. Can a believer divorce? Can he or she remarry after a divorce? Are tongues still a legitimate gift functioning in the church today, or did they pass away in the first century? Can someone who is truly saved lose his or her salvation? There are doctrinal differences about keeping the Sabbath, about whether baptism is appropriate for today, or if its significance passed away with the early church, and about whether or not God would approve of capital punishment in our society.
Many question if it’s even possible to come to any solid conclusions about some of these issues. After all, there are good people on all sides of these different positions—God-fearing, Bible-believing people—each with all kinds of reasons why they are right and the others are wrong. And with all these conflicting opinions, some Christians find it hard and painful to try to swim through even the simpler doctrinal problems, let alone the more complicated and controversial ones. They hear the theological terms and try to understand the points of view, but the conflicting opinions leave a mess that is too complicated to really sort out. Others have little interest because it seems that so many of these doctrinal debates do nothing more, in the end, than cause a lot of division and frustration in the church. And some believers would rather avoid thinking about theology altogether. Sometimes it’s tough enough just finding the time and emotional energy to spend a half an hour each day with the kids. These difficult doctrines don’t seem to them to have much to do with what is truly important in their lives. Wouldn’t it be better to simply leave the complicated theology to the professionals, who have the interest and the training to sort it out?
If only it were that simple. The fact is that everyone already has a theology. Your “theology” is simply your set of ideas about God, man, sin, heaven, and hell. The real issue is whether or not it is a good one—a theology based on solid biblical evidence and good objective reasoning, or merely based on ideas developed from feelings or careless assumptions. And it is also true, whether you recognize it or not, that your theology affects so much in your life, such as how you pray and even how you decide what to pray about. Simply said, your theology, whether good or bad, and whether you realize it or not, affects you and others around you deeply. So it is extremely important to develop your theological perspectives as accurately as possible (2 Tim 2:15). Jesus said, “If you abide in my word…you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32).
One of the problems in theology that has always created a lot of debate and discussion in the church is this: the Scriptures speak quite clearly about God’s desire that none should perish, but that all would come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:9; John 3:16). Yet the Scriptures speak just as clearly about the fact that those who do come to faith in Christ do so because God, in His sovereignty, chose them “from before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4). How is it that a sovereign God, who desires that all mankind would be saved, chooses in His sovereignty to save only some, when He could choose to save them all?
Calvinism and Arminianism are terms that refer to the two typical schools of thought regarding this problem. They both try to understand the extent and the effects of the Atonement—what exactly it was that Christ accomplished on the cross when He died for the sins of men. Christians familiar with these terms often tend to think of themselves as somehow being one or the other. Some lean toward Arminianism and tend to see the issue as a rather simple one: God gives light to everyone, and everyone is responsible for how he responds to the light. God chose men on the basis that He “foreknew” that they would want to come to Him anyway. (Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. This doesn’t work, as we’ll see later on.)
Those with leanings toward Calvinism will sometimes tend to see the issue as a matter of faith. It is not ours to question God’s workings, but merely to accept that God’s ways are above ours, and He can be trusted to do what is right. (Unfortunately, this misses so much of the picture too, as we shall see.)
And then there is the position presented here. It is distinctly different than either of these two major schools of thought. Those who hold to this view often do not even recognize that this is a “third position” on the issue. Some have come to it rather intuitively or somehow almost by default. When people read some of my previous writings on this subject, many of them quickly recognize that it rings true to the heart. They see that someone has merely put into writing what they had already recognized as true. These believers find it to be a very hopeful position on the issue, and one that answers a lot of questions and problems that somehow seem to be left hanging by the typical Calvinist and Arminian positions.
Our views on these issues make a big difference in the way we live, worship, and pray. More specifically, the way we perceive the truths in this debate will affect how we approach intercessory prayer and evangelism. Perhaps it will even determine whether or not we evangelize at all—and whether or not we believe it will really make a difference in the end. The issues are important. Proper conclusions about them are important as well— both for us and for those we want to see come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. So it is worth taking some time to consider these issues and the implications they hold for us and for others in our lives.
The terms Calvinism and Arminianism come from the names of two different Christians within the history of the church who upheld these different positions. But interestingly enough, as with many historical developments, they were not aware of their strategic place in history. John Calvin lived between the years of 1509 and 1564. During his lifetime he taught the great truths of the Christian faith and worked diligently to introduce those around him to his savior. A fellow believer, who lived in his time, a man by the name of Jacob Arminius, questioned some of the ideas that John Calvin taught regarding the depravity of man, the nature of salvation, and the extent of the atonement. (If you’re not sure about the meanings of these terms, don’t worry. They will be explained better as we go.) In 1610, about a year after Arminius died, his followers drew up five articles of faith based on his teachings, and presented them to the state of Holland in the form of a “Remonstrance,” or protest.1 This Arminian Party wanted the standard catechism of the church changed to reflect Arminius’ positions, summarized as follows:
I. God elects or reproves on the basis of foreseen faith or unbelief.
II. Christ died for all men and for every man, although only believers are saved.
III. Man is so depraved that divine grace is necessary unto faith or any good deed.
IV. This grace may be resisted.
V. Whether all who are truly regenerate will certainly persevere in the
faith is a point which needs further investigation.2
A national church council—a Synod—in Dort in 1618 carefully considered these points of protest. They concluded that the Scriptures could not support Arminius’ ideas. As a result, they wrote their response, “embodying the Calvinistic position in five chapters which have ever since been known as ‘the five points of Calvinism.’”3
The controversy, however, is much older than either Calvin or Arminius. Augustine took this Calvinistic position in his debates with the Arminian Pelagius—as far back as the fifth century A.D.!
Both schools of thought have been capably and passionately represented throughout history by able thinkers who love Jesus Christ as Lord. Believers on both sides would easily agree that it is “by grace [man has] been saved through faith; and that not of [himself], it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). But beyond this general agreement there is much room for disagreement about the finer details. It is debated whether faith to believe on Christ is a requirement for salvation or actually comes as part of the gift of salvation. Opinions differ on whether or not a lost man could ever even want to “accept Christ” and be saved. It is debated whether or not a saved man is capable in and of himself of turning away from the grace of God and willfully “giving up” his salvation. Even the very terms—terms such as grace, justification, salvation, sanctification, election, predestination, foreknowledge—are rather compli- cated and loaded with different meanings, depending on which side is using them.
The next logical step is to take a look at these two different ways of thinking about this problem. We’ll take a brief look in chapter 2 at Calvinism, as a Calvinist would present it. Then we’ll look briefly at Arminianism in chapter 3, looking at the issue from their side of the fence. Doing so will help provide a background for understanding many concepts involved in the discussion. And we’ll consider some of the emotions that run high on both sides of the debate. We’ll try to understand the passions that believers have to recognize God’s sovereignty and to appreciate His supreme love for the lost. Doing so will also create a good starting point for defining what I believe is a distinctly different position on the issue. It is a position that does not seem to be easily recognized by the “die-hards” at either end of the Calvinist- Arminian spectrum. But I believe it is the most accurate view on the subject, and it needs to be considered very seriously in the light of God’s greater purposes in the earth. I believe it is an idea that, if fully understood and embraced, is filled with hopeful possibilities for those who love Jesus Christ as Lord and want to see others come to Him. Perhaps if you see it the same way, you will become as passionate about it as I am.
So let’s proceed. Please read slowly and prayerfully. Even reread if you must. It’s a lot to process because it’s different—at least different from anything I have seen in print before. However, for those who “persevere,” I believe it can be a life-transforming concept when it is really understood.
>>> Next: Chapter 2