Ambassador of Reconciliation
9/26/11 at 09:42 PM 2 Comments

Pick Two (Who Got It Right: Calvinists or Arminians?)

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Reading a post by George W. Sarris, "Predestination or Free Will? . . . The Debate Continues" (July 22, 2011), prompted me to post my thoughts on the subject. I agree with George that Calvinists and Arminians each got it right about a crucial component of God's character—that He is absolutely sovereign and that He is unfailingly loving. And as George pointed out, we have a huge problem if we say, "God is loving, but He is also sovereignly just" or "God is sovereignly just, but He is also loving" because we thus create a conflict in His very nature. I would suggest that we need to re-examine a doctrine that both Calvinists and Arminians agree about.

A number of years ago I was trying to develop a budget for a project we were doing at the publishing company where I worked. My boss called me into her office to give me some guidelines and help me understand some of the obstacles to creating a high-quality product on time and on budget. She drew a triangle on a piece of paper and wrote one word at each vertex: Good, Fast, Cheap.

Then she said, "Pick two. If you want it to be fast and good, it won't be cheap. If you want good and cheap, it won't be fast. And if you want fast and cheap, don't expect it to be good." In the publishing world it's not an absolute impossibility to get high-quality work that is produced inexpensively and turned around quickly, but it's highly unlikely that all three conditions will be met simultaneously.

We might draw a comparison to the spiritual realm with the following three propositions, all of which can be defended from the Bible. In this case, not only is it improbable that all three will be true—it's impossible:

Calvinists believe that God will redeem everyone Jesus died for (proposition 1). They also believe that He died for the elect, which means there are some people (the non-elect) who will never be redeemed (proposition 3). Arminians believe that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world (proposition 2), but there are some people who choose to reject Him so will not be redeemed (proposition 3).

You might be thinking, "The Bible teaches all three of these truths: God is able to save all those for whom Jesus died and Jesus died for the sins of the whole world and some people reject Jesus' sacrifice for them and will be eternally separated from God. In His incomprehensible wisdom, which is far above our understanding, it can be so. I believe all three are true."

But the idea that all three could be true is not a paradox, it is not a mystery, it is not one of those inscrutable enigmas that we just have to accept by faith (like the fact that God is three and God is one, or that Jesus is fully God and fully man). It is simply a logical impossibility, an irrational contradiction. If God will redeem everyone Jesus died for and some people are never redeemed, then Jesus did not die for the whole world. If He did die for the whole world but some are not redeemed, it means that God does not redeem everyone Jesus died for. If propositions 1 and 2 are true as stated—God will redeem everyone Jesus died for, and Jesus died for the whole world—then you have an airtight deductive argument that God will redeem the whole world, in which case proposition 3 is not true.

What are we to do? We want to be faithful to Scripture, and Scripture seems to teach all three of these truths, but they cannot all be true, as both Calvinists and Arminians fully understand. Both groups accept proposition 3, and they interpret Scripture in such a way as to defend their respective positions: Calvinists accept proposition 1 and add that Jesus died only for the elect; Arminians accept proposition 2 and say that because human beings have free will, some will reject Christ and therefore not be redeemed.

The only other possibility is that proposition 3 is not true. In that case, it could be true that God will redeem everyone Jesus died for and that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. The logical implication of those two truths is that God will redeem the whole world, which is another way of saying that He will save everyone. But if you even hint at that idea in a group of evangelical Christians, you are likely to get a very negative reaction—everything from skepticism to accusations of heresy.

Here's the irony: If I believe that God will save everyone Jesus died for, that He will lose no one, I can find solid support for that belief from sound Calvinist theologians. If I believe that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, I can get equally good support from Arminian scholars. But if I believe both—and the full implications of believing both—I may be considered a heretic!

Calvinists have a saying that Jesus' work on the cross is "sufficient for all, deficient for none, efficient only for those who believe." Makes for a nice little aphorism, but to say it is efficient only for those who believe is just a euphemism for saying it is not efficient for everyone else. Not efficient? Not effective? It doesn't work? For the majority of humanity? Limited atonement? Do we really want to make such implications about Jesus' sacrifice for us?

Arminians have their own problems: Can human free will supersede God's will that all come to repentance? If God can't manage to save everyone Jesus died for, what does that say about His sovereignty and power? Is Satan more effective in accomplishing his purposes than God is in accomplishing His?

Obviously this is a very simplified presentation of the viewpoints, but we cannot for that reason just dismiss the arguments or say that the problem is a lack of understanding of the intricacies and nuances of the issue. If we are going to be intellectually honest, we need to grapple with these questions and be able to give a reasonable confession of our faith. I suggest that we need to hang onto the truths that God will save everyone Jesus died for and that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, and re-examine the assumption that some people are forever lost. God is willing to save, He is able to save, and nothing—not even our rebellion—can forever thwart His will.

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