4 – The Real Problem

If this were a simple issue, there would not be nearly so much controversy. Unfortunately, the difficulty is almost unavoidable for many reasons. First of all, a careful consideration of the two sides shows that there are a lot of ideas to process. And a complex theological concept often requires the theologian to deal with scripture passages that appear to contradict his position. Often the result is that favorable texts are exaggerated and contrary ones are downplayed. This particular debate is no exception. The proof texts typically used for these two positions are sometimes assumed to be saying more than they actually do. These are honest attempts at reconciling truths from different Scriptures into a unified understanding of the overall picture. But this is a place where we need to exercise care and caution so that we don’t read personal or emotionally biased presuppositions into the texts. I once heard Dr. Walter Martin speaking at a conference where he suggested that most people, when they say they are thinking, are merely re-arranging their prejudices. We must not let a fear of being wrong get in the way of thinking clearly through the issues.

Another cause for the difficulty comes from the different ways people use terminology in the debate. If words mean one thing in the mouth of the speaker and then convey a different meaning in the ear of the hearer, then there will sometimes be very little communication and very little understanding. Terms must be carefully defined, and both sides must understand what the other side means when they use their own terminology. For example, the Calvinist position is usually described using the term “limited atonement.” This is because the typical Arminian prefers to think of the atonement as “not limited”—it is available for anyone and everyone who will believe. So in discussion, both sides generally end up using the term “limited atonement” to mean Calvinist—limited in extent. But, as seen in the last chapter, both the Calvinist and Arminian positions recognize that the atonement is limited! Many other words convey different meanings to different people as well, depending on their backgrounds and points of view. These words can have a lot of emotion buried in them, too.

And, unfortunately, this turns out to be much of the problem regarding so many aspects of this discussion. It can’t help but be a problem when dealing with an issue as complicated as this one—not to mention the potential for differences of opinion that arise from working from a bible that is translated from ancient languages spoken in cultures thousands of years apart from ours!

Consideration of this problem places the theologian in an even greater dilemma when dealing at any level of feeling and compassion on the issue. The Calvinist theologian has difficulty with how he perceives the Arminian as belittling the sovereignty of God and elevating the sovereignty of man. He recoils at how Arminianism minimizes the evil and depravity of the human heart. If God can save by mere prevenient grace, then doesn’t the resulting view of an unsaved human heart wanting to respond to Christ belittle God’s view of the depth of blackness and corruption in the unsaved man? Does it imply a heart not quite so deceitful and desperately wicked—one really not so bad, after all? Don’t so many scripture passages show that I, as a lost man, would not have looked for God? Or at least, that if I did, my nature was such that I would not have chosen Him as He really is apart from being transformed by His sovereign grace because I was not capable of doing so?

Consider the following passages, for example: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5). “The wicked are estranged from the womb; They go astray as soon as they are born, speaking lies” (Ps. 58:3). “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jer. 17:9). “The carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:7-8). “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins…” (Eph. 2:1,2). “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him…no one can come to me unless it has been granted to him by my father” (John 6:44,65). Also consider 1 John 3:10 and Titus 3:3 (among others).

And if God works by prevenient grace, then does this imply that those who come to Christ really do so because they are in at least some way better in character than those who do not? Who among us would be the first to step forward to lay claim to the fact that we came to Christ because of our good character? It is our profound lack of character that witnesses to our need of salvation in the first place. And what of God’s sovereignty? Doesn’t this God who desires all to be saved seem to be rather impotent when His sovereign will is thwarted by His own creation that will not let itself be saved? Does this make man’s will sovereign over God’s will? A sovereign God wouldn’t really be so sovereign then, would He?

The Arminian theologian has just as many problems with the conclusions drawn from a Calvinistic position. (By the way, so do many Calvinists.) If the Calvinist is right about man’s depravity, God’s unconditional election and Christ’s limited atonement, then doesn’t this ultimately make God cold and calculating in saving some and not saving others, but leaving them to their own wicked end? What are we to do with passages of Scripture such as 1 Timothy 2:1-4 and 2 Peter 3:9, which state that God does not want any to go to a Christless eternity? And if God desires all to be saved, and yet sovereignly chooses to save only some, then how are we to understand this apparent difference between His will and His desire, when it appears to us that a sovereign God could ultimately decree anything He desired anyway?

It is hard for the Arminian to embrace the Calvinist’s God. He is a God who is passionate enough about redeeming the elect that He sets aside His rights as deity and takes on the constraints of human flesh. He then allows His own creatures to torture Him and bleed Him to death on a cross. And from God’s view, He allows it for no other reason than to appease His own wrath toward a mankind whose very nature is so hostile to His that they killed Him when they had the chance. And yet this same Calvinist God who “spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” and who is now is willing, along with that, to “freely give us all things”—this same God who went to such great lengths of self-sacrifice to be able to bless His own so much—is the same God who decided in eternity past to do that only for some. The others He passes by, yet will hold them accountable for the acts that spring from a nature they are powerless to overcome. In the end, they will be in hell with the demons who fell from grace, and “the smoke of their torment [will rise] before the throne of God day and night, forever and ever” (Rev. 20:10).

If someone had two children, lavishing favor and blessing on one of them, but treating the other as though he were trash, that parent would be accused of being a monster. After all, a godly parent loves his or her children unconditionally. To do nothing less than to lavish unconditional love on all of them is what God expects a parent to do. Even if one child were to despise the parent while the other child was honoring and loving, the nature of a Christian parent is supposed to be one of displaying the love of Christ to that child with the evil heart, “if perhaps God may grant repentance” (2 Tim. 2:25). If the Calvinist is right, then God is the only one who can grant repentance. If He sovereignly saves someone, they will come. If He doesn’t, they will not because they cannot. How can someone see God as being so passionate toward some and cruel toward others, when He appears to expect something better from us?

Even Jesus himself said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven…” (Matt. 5:43-45).

So if God could, by His sovereign decree, transform all men to love Him, why does He only do it for some and leave the rest to hate Him, then punish them for all eternity for sins that result from a nature they cannot change?

And so we see the emotionally charged points of view that people on both sides of the issue can have because of what they appreciate about certain aspects of the nature and character of God. And yet we see how we are all limited by our human reason and our human condition. For now we see “in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12). God’s thoughts and ways are higher than ours are (Isa. 55:8). It is inevitable that there will be different opinions on the subject.

For most people on the Arminian side of the issue, the part of Calvinism that is most troubling is the reality that if God chooses some to be saved, then He must be choosing to leave the rest to perish. But no matter how bothersome this position might be, the Calvinist would be careful (and correct) to remind us all that what might appear unfair to us may be a reflection of the difference between our human views and those of an omnipotent, eternal and holy God. He would also be correct in pointing out that no matter how uncomfortable it may make us feel, the Scriptures do say that God chooses some and that those who come to saving faith in Christ do so because God chose them. The Gospel of John, for example, is particularly strong with this feeling. Note, for example, the following passages:

Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him…I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word…For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours…(John 17:1b, 2, 6, 8-9).

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will by no means cast out…This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day…No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day. Jesus said, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father” (John 6:37,39.44,65).

In considering the question, “For whom did Christ die: for all or only the elect?” the effects of Christ’s death must be considered. Regarding the Scriptures that state what was accomplished by His death on the cross, Palmer says:

The bible defined the death of Jesus in at least four different ways. When Christ died, (1) He made substitutionary sacrifice for sins (Heb. 9, 10). (2) He propitiated, that is, appeased or placated, the righteous wrath of God (Rom. 3:25, Heb. 2:17, 1st John. 2:2, 4:10). (3) He reconciled His people to God— that is, He removed the enmity between them and God (Rom. 5:10; 2nd Cor. 5:20; etc.). (4) He redeemed them from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13).

The question that needs a precise answer is this: Did He or didn’t He? If He did, then it was not for all the world, for then all the world would be saved.9

From his Calvinistic perspective, Palmer does make a worthy point regarding what Christ actually did when He died on the cross. For those who are saved, God has satisfied His anger and wrath toward their sin. Christ is the substitute for their sins. When God looks at the believer, He sees that one as having Christ’s own righteousness. So if He did it for all (redeemed them, made propitiation for their sins, reconciled them to God) then all would be saved. Therefore, it seems that He could not have done it for all men, or else no one would go to hell.

Now Calvinists themselves also recognize the nature of other types of texts in scripture that seem to imply a universal atonement (one potentially available to anyone who will believe) and the inherent difficulty these texts present to their theology. Steele and Thomas comment about the passages of Scripture that speak of Christ dying for “all men” or of His death being for “all the world.”

There are two classes of texts that speak of Christ’s saving work in general terms: (a) Those containing the word “world” —e.g., John 1:9,29; 3:16,17; 4:42; 2 Cor. 5:19; 1 John 2:1,2; 4:14; and (b) Those containing the word “all” —e.g., Romans 5:18; 2 Cor. 5:14,15; 1 Tim. 2:4-6; Heb. 2:9; 2 Pet. 3:9.

One reason for the use of these expressions was to correct the false notion that salvation was for the Jews alone. Such phrases as “the world,” “all men,” “all nations,” and “every creature” were used by the New Testament writers to emphatically correct this mistake. These expressions are intended to show that Christ died for all men without distinction (i.e., He died for Jews and Gentiles alike) but they are not intended to indicate that Christ died for all men without exception (i.e., He did not die for the purpose of saving each and every lost sinner).10

This is an interesting way of looking at some of these passages. But the position is not well supported for all of the texts they site. In fact, for some of them, it seems to be a real stretch. It is certainly not the first sense of meaning they convey. Some seem to say quite strongly, “whosoever will may come.” They do not convey at the same time any feeling from the writer that “only the elect will, however.”

Can passages such as 1 Timothy 2:1-4 and 2 Peter 3:9 be strained to support unconditional election and a limited atonement, as Steele and Thomas try to do above? This seems to be a logical conclusion, not a textual one. It is required to resolve the apparent contradictions created by other Scriptures, such as Romans, chapter nine, which Calvinists see as strongly supporting their definition of unconditional election. But the Calvinist’s idea of limited atonement seems to contradict the clear sense of 1 Timothy 2:4 and 2 Peter 3:9 (as well as other passages) regarding the passion of God’s heart to seek and save the lost. His passion is that He desires to save all of them.

Some theologians have explained this problem as a paradox—two ideas that appear to be contradictory, and yet must both be true. In this case, some passages say, “Whosoever will may come,” while others say, “No one can come unless God chooses them.” Some passages seem to indicate that God desires that all mankind come to saving faith in Christ. Others seem to indicate that a sovereign God, who could, by a sovereign act, choose to save all, chooses instead to save only some. Yet we believe that the Bible is true and accept it as not contradicting itself. So if ideas appear opposite and yet are both true (because they are in scripture), then they are explained as paradoxical.

I see great virtue in people accepting things they cannot fully understand, simply because God said they are so. But I believe that in this particular case we don’t have to live without a clear understanding of the issue. We can recognize and understand how God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability work together. I believe the Scriptures are clear that God, by His sovereign will, saves only some. But I believe it is just as clear that His desire is to save all men. And I believe the tension between God’s will to save some and His desire to save all can be understood. But when it is, it will be because of a different understanding of God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability. I believe the way the church interacts with God through the course of time affects how He chooses to exercise His sovereignty on behalf of some of those now lost and to intervene in their lives to bring them to salvation; and so, in the end, it will be the church who will be accountable in large measure for the eternal destiny of the lost.

But it is a lot of ground to cover. And before my position can be developed, the reader needs to be aware of the potential to read ideas into texts that are not necessarily there. These ideas need to be set aside long enough to let a different position be explained fully. Consider my position as I develop it here. If proof texts come to mind that question or challenge this position, make note of them, but then set the notes aside for a little while. Then, after having given these ideas some careful consideration, go back and examine the texts typically used as proofs for a Calvinist or Arminian theology. But be careful to read no more into the texts than specifically has to be there. When all the “cans” of the passages typically used as proof texts for Calvinism or Arminianism are stripped away, and we look only at the “have to’s” these passages state clearly, I believe a distinctly different picture can emerge from some other Scriptures that have perhaps not often been considered in this context before. And as its true implications are understood, it is my prayer that you will be able to embrace this life-changing view of God’s dealings with the church and the world.

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