Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Who Got It Right . . . Calvin or Arminius?

By George W. Sarris

The centuries-old debate between the followers of John Calvin and Jacob Arminius has surfaced again on the pages of This time, each side claims to offer absolute PROOF that they are right . . . and, by implication, that the other side is wrong.
Dan Delzell began the exchange with his article, Proof that God Wants Everyone in HeavenThat was responded to just a day later by Robin Schumacher’s, Proof That God Chooses Who Will Be Savedand then about a week and a half after that with a follow-up article, Why Isn’t Everyone a Christian? .
As would be expected, they both succeeded in accomplishing their primary goal – to prove their point.
But neither succeeded in accomplishing his secondary goal – to disprove the other’s contention.
Dealing With Controversy
Over the years, two underlying thoughts have governed the way I approach controversial issues within Christianity.
The first is to remember that every book and every article any of us will ever read about God and the Bible has been written by a human being. And human beings are just that– they’re human. Not everything they think or say is right. Both John Calvin and Jacob Arminius were dedicated, brilliant individuals. But, to err is human – some of their ideas may be incorrect.
The second thing I try to keep in mind is that when two wise, godly individuals differ on an important issue . . . tread lightly. One of the two may be right and the other wrong. But it may also be the case that both are right and both are wrong– and that a third alternative that neither has really considered, may ultimately reconcile the two.
The Real Problem
In the current debate, both sides are to be commended for their efforts to base their views squarely on the teaching of Scripture.
Dan Delzell pointed out in the beginning of his article that his proof that God wants everyone in Heaven is first and foremost found in Scripture where this truth is clearly taught.
Robin Schumacher likewise was very careful to point out that the Bible is explicit in the fact that God chooses who will be saved. There is nothing implicit about it or anything that needs to be inferred.
Scripture specifically says that God desires all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. And Scripture also specifically says that no one comes to Christ unless the Father draws him.
So, they are both right . . . but they’re also both wrong!
Calvinists focus on God’s sovereignty. But, as any Arminian will tell you, Calvinism makes God – who is love – incredibly unloving. God could save all. But in actual fact has chosen to save only a few. Schumacher’s suggestion that God’s wrath brings Him glory is simply a further proof of His insensitivity. It’s hard to get excited about a God who delights in watching people suffer.
Arminians focus on God’s love. But, as any Calvinist will tell you, Arminians make God into a tragic Hero. He desires to save all, but is ultimately powerless to do so. In the end, God loses. Finite creatures are able to successfully frustrate what God desires in His heart.
However, the real problem with both systems is not that they don’t get everything right. The real problem is that each side expends a tremendous amount of energy trying to disprove the other’s arguments . . . instead of seeking to discover how the two clearly revealed truths about God’s nature can be reconciled!
A Third Alternative?
We in the 21st century are often woefully ignorant of Church history.
We tend to read what the Apostles had to say . . . and then jump ahead 20 centuries to read what our favorite modern authors have to say – with some of us making a brief stop along the way to take note of what the Reformers had to say. In the process, we ignore the insights of many of Christendom’s greatest thinkers.
Interestingly, there was a time in the history of the Christian Church when the issue of God’s love vs. His sovereignty was not a problem.
It was a time when the Church was closest to the Apostles . . . its influence and impact on the surrounding culture was greater and more effective than at any other time . . . and its growth was unmatched.
It was a time when some of the Church’s most respected leaders were convinced that God not only desired to get everyone ultimately into heaven . . . they believed He would actually accomplish it!
These early Christian leaders believed in another clearly revealed truth that Scripture specifically teaches – that Jesus Christ is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.
For them, God is far greater, far more powerful, and far more gracious than you or I have ever thought or imagined. He defeated sin and death completely and will one day see all those He created walk through Heaven’s doors.
They offered a third alternative that those of us in this century would be wise to consider.
Who knows, maybe it would show us how John Calvin and Jacob Arminius can actually both get it right . . . when they work together to see a sovereign plan accomplish all that God desires!
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Anonymous said...

So if I'm unrepentant, does that mean I go to hell for an indefinite time, until I'm so tortured I'm forced to repent and choose God -- and then He brings me to heaven???

George W. Sarris said...

Thank you for your comment.

God’s judgments go beyond simply punishing for sin. The apostle Paul called himself the worst of sinners. And he wasn’t just speaking out of false modesty. He had intentionally persecuted, and even had Christians put to death. But God didn’t just punish Paul for his sins. He didn’t just prevent him from doing bad things. God transformed Paul’s heart so that Paul became a powerful force for doing good. Ultimately, God’s intent is not simply to punish. It is to transform. The Scriptures are very clear that God is both all-powerful and all-loving. Those who believe in ultimate restoration see those two qualities working together through the ages to accomplish God’s good purposes.

Anonymous said...

True, God's justice and mercy are reconciled -- but only through the person and work of Christ. As I ponder UR, I can't help but think of the gravity of Jesus' words that He is the only door to heaven (John 14:6). From what I read, hell is a place Christ went to only once: to proclaim victory over it, but not to annihilate it. If Christ is not in hell, I see no transformation there....if so, it begs this question: why doesn't a loving God transform Satan himself?

George W. Sarris said...

The significance of Christ's death is such an important question!

The belief in ultimate restoration does not diminish the value and worth of Christ's sacrifice, it actually heightens it exponentially. Why did Christ come? To redeem mankind. How did He do it? By dying on the cross for our sins. When did He do it? While we were still sinners. Christ did NOT fail to accomplish what He set out to do! He succeeded! It is because He died on the cross for the sins of mankind that mankind is able to enter His presence.

The only thing I am suggesting that is different from what you believe is that physical death does not mark the end of when God works in the hearts of individuals. The nature and duration of Hell are in no way a substitute for the work of Christ. They are a means by which God will, through the ages, bring a soul to a point where the work of Christ may finally be applied to it. God doesn't give up on the sinner. He continues to work in the lives of men and women in the ages to come.

He continues to work in the lives of the spiritual beings in the ages to come, as well. In the end, when Christ presents His kingdom to the Father, every knee in heaven and earth and under the earth will freely bow.