Friday, July 22, 2011

Predestination or Free Will? . . . The Debate Continues

The wagons have circled, and the second round of shots is being fired.

What I am referring to, of course, is the series of books by well-known evangelicals opposing Rob Bell’s Love Wins. Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle, andGod Wins by Mark Galli have recently become available online and in bookstores, with others set to be released soon. Bell shot first, and now the return fire.

Roger Olson, Professor of Theology at George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, made a very perceptive observation in that regard:

After reading Mark Galli’s book God Wins and reviewing it here, I went back and re-read Bell’s Love Wins – looking for the weaknesses and dangers Mark points out. What I find is this: IF I were a Calvinist, I would find Love Wins troubling. But as an Arminian, I find it challenging, but not particularly troubling. . . . The [attacks] I have read and heard ALL arise out of Reformed assumptions about God rather than out of Arminian assumptions about God. And there’s the main difference. Not all Arminians will agree with everything Bell says, but the general thrust of his theology in Love Wins is classically Arminian.

What Is God Like . . . Really?

Volumes have been written down through the centuries about the attributes of God. In fact, a hallmark of every systematic theology is a section on who God is and what He is like. These attributes are divided up and stated in different ways by different theologians, but all mention two specific qualities that scripture points to as the overarching qualities from which all the others are derived.

In Psalm 62:11-12, when King David faced opposition from those who sought to depose him, he found rest for his soul by reminding himself of these two aspects of God’s nature that are at the heart of who He really is.

One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard: that you, O God, are strong, and that you, O Lord, are loving.

Of all the attributes that characterize the God of heaven, His sovereign power and His unfailing love are foundational.

Scripture makes it very clear that God alone has the absolute right and power to do all things according to His good pleasure. He can do anything and everything He wants. There are no limits on God except those that He Himself has imposed because of the goodness of His nature. God cannot do certain things because He will not do them. Which brings us to the second attribute of God that Scripture makes abundantly clear.

God is loving. In fact, Scripture says that He is not simply loving, He is love! And, it even defines love in I Corinthians 13. Two of its central features are that love suffers long, and is kind – it is not vindictive. And love never fails – not in this age or in the ages to come.

Interestingly, these two “attributes” of God relate directly to the distinctions between Calvinists and Arminians that Dr. Olson has referred to. That distinction is even seen in the titles of the two books he mentions at the center of the debate. Rob Bell focused on God’s love and titled his book, Love Wins. Mark Galli focused on God’s sovereignty and titled his book, God Wins.

Calvin vs. Arminius

If you have ever attended a Bible study, Sunday School class, or some other activity where people get together to discuss serious issues of faith, you probably witnessed a debate between those who believe that God predestines certain individuals to be saved and others who believe that mankind has a free will. I have participated in many such discussions over the years, and sometimes the arguments have gotten quite heated.

God’s sovereignty undergirds all of the reformed theology of John Calvin and his followers, and led directly to their belief that God predestines those who are saved. For them, it is God’s sovereign grace alone that results in mankind’s salvation. We were dead in our transgressions and sins, and salvation comes only because God Himself is able, and, in fact, has sovereignly chosen to give life to those who were dead.

The problem they face, however, is that the ones whom God has chosen not to save actually represent a dramatically larger portion of the human race than those whom Godhas chosen, which opens them up to the charge of making God into a cruel tyrant. The answer generally given in response to that charge is that God is not only loving, He is also just. For them, what is most important in the end is that God ultimately wins.

Jacob Arminius held most of Calvin’s teaching in very high regard. However, he strongly disagreed with him with regard to predestination and election. Why would God limit the extent of His grace? Is it not God’s will that all should be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth? God’s love extends to all. And, because God is love, He has given mankind a free will. The unsaved are those who have freely chosen to resist God’s grace.

The problem the Arminians face is that they have placed a limit on God’s sovereignty, and the ones who ultimately resist God’s grace also represent a dramatically larger portion of the human race than those who accept it. That opens them up to the charge of making God into a defeated sovereign. The answer generally given in response to that charge is that God may not get everything He would like to have gotten, but He has been true to His nature. For them, what is most important in the end is that love ultimately wins.

Internal Conflict?

There are actually strong, Biblical arguments on both sides of the issue. And, there are also weaknesses inherent in both of the positions.

The Scriptures clearly teach that God is both sovereign and loving. However, by choosing to focus on one quality over another, strict Calvinists and Arminians have actually raised a new question that is, at least to me, far more problematic: Is God internally conflicted? Is one of His divine attributes at war with another? Is there a hierarchy within God’s nature that makes one quality – love – grudgingly submit to another quality – sovereign justice?

After reading my last blog post about treading lightly in areas where wise, godly individuals disagree, a friend emailed me to say,

It reminds me of one time when I was talking with another Christian about salvation . . . Is it free will? Is it predestination? My friend said both! That threw me for a mental loop. Then I started asking myself why not? God can do anything! Why should I limit Him with my finite thinking?

God is not conflicted internally. The loving and just elements of His nature are not at war with each other. It was His justice working together with His love that led to Christ dying on the cross for the sins of the world.

So, who is right . . . the Calvinists or the Arminians? Is it predestination or free will?

When faced with two choices, each with some inherently unsatisfactory elements, sometimes the best course of action is to keep on looking.

Calvinists are right about God’s sovereignty. Arminians are right about His love . . . which is why I sometimes call myself a “Calvi-Minian.”

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