A few weeks ago, Mark Snoeberger had a post arguing that in the matter of salvation, especially the issue of regeneration, there are only two possible options, which he labeled as Calvinism and Arminianism. As might be expected, there was some push back to the idea of this two-option-only proposal. Mark also alluded to an ongoing series of blog posts on this issue titled “Why I’m Not a Calvinist…or an Arminian,” which is currently up to five parts. I would like to try and reinforce the point that Mark was making.
The real issue comes down to the question of who saves us. Does God save us, or do we, with some help from God, save ourselves? That’s rather stark, so let me expand upon that. What I mean, and what I’m trying to get at, is who is the ultimate decider in the matter of our salvation? Is God the one who ultimately decides if I end up in heaven or hell, or am I the one who ultimately decides if I end up in heaven or hell? Quickly, someone will say that both God and I decide. There is truth there, but there can be only one ultimate decider, one person who makes the final determination.
This binary choice I am insisting on is nicely captured in the U of the acronym TULIP, where the U stands for unconditional election. Grudem says, “The reason for election is simply God’s sovereign choice…. God chose us simply because he decided to bestow his love upon us. It was not because of any foreseen faith or foreseen merit in us” (Systematic Theology, 679). Calvinists of all persuasions believe in unconditional election: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world” (Eph 1:4). God’s choosing or election of the individual to salvation is not conditioned on anything within the individual himself—thus unconditional.
The other, and the only other possibility, is conditional election, which says God’s election is conditioned on something within the individual. God is said to elect those to salvation whom he foresees will have faith in Christ. This is the viewpoint of Arminianism.
In Calvinism faith is the result of election; in Arminianism election is the result of faith. All evangelicals, whether Calvinist or Arminian, believe in salvation by grace. All agree that we are sinners and because of depravity need God’s grace: efficacious grace in the case of the Calvinist, or prevenient grace in the case of the Arminian. In Arminianism prevenient grace is given to all people, or at least to all who hear the gospel, and enables them to be saved by cooperating with God’s grace (synergism), but this prevenient grace may be rejected. Again, there are only two choices. Either God’s grace is efficacious and ultimately overcomes the individual’s depravity and brings him to faith in Christ (Calvinism), or God’s grace is just prevenient, that is, it is sufficient to overcome depravity, but the individual may reject this grace (Arminianism).
This binary choice is untenable, unthinkable for many. There must be another way, a third position (tertium quid), particularly a middle way (via media) between these two harsh extremes. But there is none. In Calvinism God ultimately chooses (unconditional election) and gives grace (efficacious) to bring the sinner to Christ. The sinner makes a real, genuine choice for Christ, but only because of God’s prior choice. God is the ultimate decider. In Arminianism the sinner cooperates with grace (prevenient) and chooses God (conditional election). In Arminianism God is not the ultimate decider. If the sinner chooses God, God must choose to save the sinner, but if sinner rejects God, God cannot choose to save the sinner. God simply ratifies whatever decision the sinner makes. God is not deciding anything. The sinner is the ultimate decider.
Both Calvinists and Arminians agree that the sinner chooses Christ. The sinner is not coerced into a decision for Christ. The major difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is what ultimately and finally causes a depraved sinner to choose Christ. Imagine Joe and Jack, identical twins, attend church together and sit together in the same pew week after week listening to the gospel being proclaimed. Maybe their hearing of the gospel goes on for many years. But Joe eventually responds to the message, receives Christ, dies, and goes to heaven. Jack rejects the message, never receives Christ, dies, and goes to hell. Why does Joe go to heaven and Jack to hell? What is different about these two similar, in many ways identical, men, who both heard the gospel over many years? Why does Joe say “Yes” and Jack say “No”? What rational person wants to go to hell?
One answer is that God chose Joe (unconditional election) and gave him grace (efficacious) that caused him to believe. He owes his salvation completely to God (monergism). Joe cannot boast in his salvation (1 Cor 1:28–29; Eph 2:8–9). This is Calvinism.
The other, and only other possible, answer is that God chose Joe because Joe chose God (conditional election). God looked down the corridors of time and saw that Joe would one day believe the gospel, so he elected Joe. But actually God did not make any independent choice. If Joe chooses God, God must choose Joe, but if Joe rejects God, God cannot choose Joe. God simply ratifies whatever choice Joe makes. Joe has the same grace (prevenient) necessary to believe the gospel as his brother Jack. According to this view, everyone who hears the gospel has the prevenient grace necessary to believe the gospel. But if that is so, how do we explain why Joe accepted the gospel and Jack rejected it? The only answer is that there is something in Joe, something superior in Joe (intelligence, merit, goodness—something) that caused him to believe—something that Joe had but Jack lacked. This difference between Joe and Jack is not due to God. God does exactly the same thing for both Joe and Jack. They had the same opportunity, the same grace (prevenient). The only conclusion that can be drawn is that in some way Joe must be better than Jack. Joe did not do it all, or most of it, but he deserves some credit. This is Arminianism.
One may not like the labels Calvinism and Arminianism and can rail against them all day long. But they historically represent the two evangelical options for the salvation of sinners. Either God is the ultimate decider: He gets all glory. Or the sinner is the ultimate decider: he deserves to share in that glory.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Even though in conditional election God does not really elect anyone—he simply ratifies the sinner’s decision—some Arminians have rejected conditional election since for them any sense of God choosing individuals for salvation is too repugnant and contrary to their concept of man’s free will, which is the animating principle behind Arminianism. They promote what they call corporate election, which insists that God does not choose individuals, but the church. But as Arminian Brian Abasciano admits: “Nevertheless, corporate election necessarily entails a type of individual election because of the inextricable connection between any group and the individuals who belong.” In other words, corporate election is a form of conditional election since membership in the elect church is conditioned upon the individual’s faith.
Roger Olson, who is probably the most prominent Arminian theologian in America, has said: “Isn’t there a ‘middle ground’ between Calvinism and Arminianism? A: No, there isn’t, not that is logically coherent. In fact, Arminianism is the middle ground between Calvinism and ‘semi-Pelagianism,’ which is the heresy (so declared by the Second Synod of Orange in 529 and all the Reformers agreed) that sinners are capable of exercising a good will toward God unassisted by God’s grace” (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2014/07/arminianism-faq-1-everything-you-always-wanted-to-know).