As with many differences of opinion about controversial issues, the truth in this debate lies somewhere in the middle. It is just not always easy to see it. My position does not really fit either the Calvinist or Arminian schools of thought. Now I don’t believe my position is right just because it lies in the middle. Sometimes a middle-of-the-road position is nothing more than a compromise taken to avoid tedious thought and conflict. Unfortunately, a middle-of-the-road position is also frequently the best way to end up as road- kill. But for now, this is where I must stand. And though my position may be somewhere between the others, I believe it provides the most satisfactory answers to the issues which always seem to remain unaddressed by the other positions.
And it seems that sometimes both Calvinist and Arminian alike miss some of the most significant implications of this perspective. Consequently, though my train of thought follows the general direction of the five points that have historically framed the debate, I decided to avoid trying to stick too closely to them. The issues do not always fit well into these divisions if these significant implications are to be considered.
Calvinists and Arminians both recognize the fact that man’s nature is corrupt. This is a consequence of the fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The difference is a (very important) matter of degree. Just how badly depraved is totally depraved? The issue is whether or not a sinner can choose—or even want to choose, if presented with the choice—to come to Christ while still in his lost state. Is faith part of the required response to be saved, as the Arminian would say? Or is it a part of the divinely imparted gift of salvation, as the Calvinist would say?
I believe a lost man is “stuck” with a human nature that is sinful and self-serving (Eph. 2:1-3; Rom. 8:7). He cannot really want to seek after God as He really is, and as an act of self-sacrificing, joyful worship. This defining mark of a true Christian is the result of a transforming salvation experience. A lost man’s nature is incapable of doing so. There are untold millions of people in the world who appear to be seeking God, and yet die without ever coming to a proper understanding of who He really is. Romans 1:21-26 speaks of people who recognize real truths about the real God, hold Him up to inspection, decide they don’t like Him as He is, and choose instead to pursue false gods because they like them better. So, though many appear to seek God for all kinds of reasons, I believe the reasons are ultimately self-centered. The unregenerate human nature is incapable, in the end, of doing anything other than looking out for its own self-interest. A lost man cannot take delight in a God whose nature is so violently opposed to his own (Rom. 8:5-6). I believe that it is quite clear that the only reason any can come to a place of being truly able to worship Christ—for His sake, and on His terms—is as a result of His saving work. This is a function of the new nature.
But (for the Arminian, at least) it seems to be a bit of a leap to suggest that because a nature is corrupted by the fall, that someone is incapable of responding to God—especially if that man or woman is presented with enough spiritual light from God to be able to see that it may be in his or her own self-interest to do so. For the sake of argument, let’s go a little further, still. Suppose that the Arminian is right. Suppose that God does reveal Himself to those who are truly seeking, because they seek. After all, Jesus said, “If anyone wants to do God’s will, he will know if I came on my own, or if the Father sent me” (John 7:17). And Romans 2:7 says, “to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality [He will give eternal life].”
Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that there are those few who seek God, even if only for their own sake. They seek Him because of a fear of hell or because of a need to be healed of a broken heart that suffers from the pain of mistakes and sinful acts; but no matter what the reason, they are seeking. If this does in fact occur, then for the one who is seeking, both the Calvinist and the Arminian can be pleased with the seeker’s final state. We have ample testimony in Scripture that God sovereignly saves many who would not look for Him. Scripture leaves little room for the fear that some could truly seek Him and yet not find Him and be lost. So if the lost were to seek God while still in their lost state, we could rest knowing that “the judge of all the earth [will] do right” (Gen 18:25).
Concerning those who seek God and find Him, the Calvinist can rest because he believes he is seeing the sovereign God working His electing process on those He has chosen from eternity past. The Arminian can rest, rejoicing in the response of a sinner to the prevenient grace of God.
But whether I am a Calvinist or an Arminian, all this allows me to do is rejoice in the fact that God is already bringing some to salvation. It doesn’t deal with the problem that still exists: namely, how to reconcile the apparent difference between a sovereign God’s desire that all men be saved, and His sovereign work of saving only some. There are many Scriptures that speak to the fact that people—most people, at least—do not seek God at all (Rom. 3:10-18; Ps. 51:5; 58:3; Gen. 6:5; 8:21; Eccl 9:3; Jer. 17:9; Mark 7:21-23; John 3:19; 1 John 5:19; Job 15:14-16; James 3:2,8). One careful and honest look around you reveals the plain fact that the majority of people demonstrate this on a daily basis. They have little or no interest in really knowing God— except, perhaps, as “fire insurance,” so to speak.
Jesus said that no one can come to Him unless it is granted by the Father (John 6:44,65). Jesus also said that all who are appointed by the Father to come will do so. He will lose none of them (John 6:37,39,44). Are those who are seeking God doing so because He has already started the process of bringing those people to the point of saving faith as a sovereign act over the course of time? Some passages of scripture do seem to support the idea that those who believed on Christ did so because of God’s sovereign act of imparting saving faith. “And as many as had been ordained to eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48). This is the Calvinist view: that saving faith is part of the gift of salvation, and those who believe were appointed by the Father to do so (John 6:65).
And yet other passages seem to support the Arminian view that faith was the basis for salvation. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become the children of God…” (John 1:12). Notice that the passage does not say, “but as many as He gave the right, these received Him.” It says, “those who received Him, to them He gave the right.” The “receiving of Jesus,” the “believing on His name”—this is the prerequisite for God’s extending the right to become a child of God. Faith is the prerequisite for the privilege of son-ship. Notice what Paul says in the book of Acts: “The God who made the world and all things in it…made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth…that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27).
It seems in the above passage that God is expecting that all men should seek Him. Hebrews 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”
Faith is a prerequisite for coming to God. He rewards those who seek Him. If saving faith were part of the gift of salvation, then wouldn’t He be rewarding someone for possessing a gift that only He Himself could impart? It seems then, that perhaps saving faith cannot be imparted as part of the gift of salvation, if it is the prerequisite for salvation. And so it seems that maybe the Calvinist cannot be exactly right here.
But then, neither is the Arminian. He must recognize that salvation cannot simply be seen as a free, open-ended and ever-present invitation to all, that can be exercised at will by the lost man…quite the contrary. Jesus said that no one can come to Him except that the Father sovereignly gives him or her opportunity to come (John 6:44,65). This is not simply because people possess a sin nature (Ps. 51:5; 58:3). People—possessing a sin nature, and therefore being predisposed to wanting to sin—commit sins. (Romans 7:9- 11; Eph. 2:2-3; James 4:1). As a result they become slaves to sin (James 4:2- 3; Rom 1:29-32; 6:16). Adam and Eve sinned by deliberate choice. How much more does mankind now sin when born with a nature already bent in that direction? After a point, or beyond some circumstances, God gives the sinner over to a reprobate mind. As a result, the sinner is incapable of even recognizing truth, let alone responding to it (Rom. 1:18-32; Eph. 4:19). Their minds are blinded by Satan (2 Cor. 4:4; 2 Tim 2:26) and by the consequences of their own sinful and hard-hearted responses to their life situations (2 Cor. 3:13; Rom. 11:7-10; Eph. 4:26-27; Heb. 3:13). They are then powerless, for all practical purposes, of being able to respond to a call to salvation without specific, sovereign, divine intervention (1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:6; 2 Tim 2:26). As an analogy, a man is free to jump from the roof of a ten-story building. He is no longer free to get up again once he hits the ground.
People may start out in life with an awareness of “eternity in their hearts” (Eccl. 3:11) and an awareness of an eternal creator (Rom. 1:18-20). But men show they love the darkness more than the light by their evil deeds (John 3:19). God does not wait indefinitely, forever pleading patiently with those who are lost and love their state of sin (1 Cor. 10:8-12; Jude 5). If that man does not respond to the light of nature and conscience and come to God while he is still able to recognize Him (and most do not), then God is not mocked (Gal. 6:17; Rom. 6:16). As time and circumstances shape the character of the man, willful neglect of the Spirit’s promptings leads to God giving that man over to a reprobate (unfit) mind. I believe this is typically, though not always, a gradual process (Heb. 3:12-13; Matt. 13:22). But as this hardening of the heart occurs, whether sudden or gradual, then unless God sovereignly enlightens the non-believer to an awareness of his lost condition and his need to be saved, then he will not ever be able to come to salvation (Matt. 13:11- 15; John 6:44a; 2 Cor. 4:4).
Now if, for reasons of God’s own sovereign design, He does choose to reveal Himself to a lost man and call him to repentance and salvation, that man is then responsible to respond to God. Those select ones to whom God extends an invitation to salvation by sovereignly awakening their hearts and minds must respond by believing on the name of Jesus in order to be saved (John 1:12; Heb. 3:7-13). They are required to choose because they are given a unique opportunity to do so.
The Calvinist might be quick to see this as an argument for a prevenient grace available to all, by which some respond and others do not. But this is not really the idea here. And the Calvinist must be careful here not to fall into the trap of disregarding a concept simply because it can be labeled with a term made common by those on the other side of the debate. Many a Christian will testify as to how the Spirit of God convicted him of sin and his need of Christ before conversion. And the Scriptures refer in Romans, chapter 1, to how God revealed Himself to those who did not respond to Him. They knew who He was and what His nature required of them, but they still turned away and were therefore given over to a reprobate mind. Though the Arminian side commonized the term “prevenient grace,” it is not fair to dismiss the reality that God convicts people of sin before conversion. He convicts those who later come to Christ, and those who do not.
Furthermore, this is not an argument for a general and universally available grace. This is, instead, an argument for a particular grace—a grace extended only to some and only at particular times and situations. All of mankind is in darkness and sin. A lost man cannot even recognize that there is a choice to be made without God first supernaturally revealing Himself in the man’s life. Only those God chooses to draw can recognize the reality of who Jesus is and the need they have for Him (John 6:64-65). And I believe that Jesus was implying in this context that the Father does not choose to draw everyone.
For those who come to Christ because God gives this select opportunity, it is a choice they make while still within their lost state (John 1:12-13). The response is a real choice made by the one who is lost. God knows the choice the lost man will make if given the opportunity. God knows the man’s heart because He shaped it even from before the man’s birth. And so He sovereignly chooses, whether gradually or in an instant, to lift the veil of darkness and demonic deception to allow the opportunity for this real choice to be made (2 Cor. 4:4; 2 Tim. 2:25-26). So the lost man, who is accountable, exercises saving faith, because God, who is sovereign, first gives him opportunity to do so. It is a choice the man makes, but only because God first ordains the man’s opportunity to choose, knowing that he will. And in this way, “as many as [are] ordained to eternal life believe” (Acts 13:48).
Now from the man’s side, this is likely to be a self-serving choice. It is a response out of fear or need. A person cannot do anything as a lost soul except look out for his or her own self-interest…that is all a lost person’s nature is capable of doing. As it says in the book of Job, “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life” (Job 2:4). It is choosing to accept a specific offer of peace and forgiveness, of freedom from a lost eternity. It is responding to God’s offer for one’s own sake. And yet I believe that God, in His compassion, meets us at this point (Lam. 3:22; Matt. 9:36).
Jesus told the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:16-24). Though the son realized he had broken his father’s heart, he ultimately decided to return home because he was better off there, and the father received his son with joy and gladness even on this basis. And I believe that Jesus’ point in this parable is that this is exactly what the Father’s love is really like. God accepts our response to His offer of salvation, as self-serving as it is at the time.
I believe, however, that at the moment of salvation, when the Spirit is imparted to that lost soul and as he receives Jesus as his savior, that God suddenly reveals the joyful reality of what it means to worship God as He really is and simply for His pleasure. This is a manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit. It cannot even start until the new birth (Rom. 8:7-9; 2 Cor. 5:17). The new birth marks the start of a journey on the road to the joy of worshipping God for God’s sake.
>>> Next: Chapter 6