(Click here to read the introduction to this series)
New Testament missions
This is the first article in our series on the “Bethany Distinctives”, the positions that collectively make Bethany Baptist Church unique from many other churches. And this first one is a doozy! Right off the bat, I get to start out with one of the most controversial topics in Church history.
I’m referring to the Calvinist-Arminian debate. I’ve barely written those words down and I’m already compelled to make some qualifications. The first is that I cannot begin to settle a debate that’s been raging in the Church for at least 1,600 years in a single blog post (though there are a surprising number of people who try to do just that!). Rather, I simply want to present my church’s position on that topic. I’m well aware that for every point I bring up there’s a counter-point and a counter-counter-point. I simply don’t have space to address every argument or examine every Bible passage. I do believe however that my basic positions would survive the tussle if we had space to get into it.
Secondly, do not get the idea that by presenting this particular topic (and first, of all things!) that this issue is the most important doctrine to Bethany. It’s not. In fact, in the grand scheme of things it’s fairly low on the list (though that doesn’t mean it’s not important). Throughout Church history different doctrines have had their time in the limelight. As these trends ebb and flow, Christians find it necessary to address the different issues that arise with them. The “New Calvinist” movement has brought Reformed theology to the forefront of modern Christianity. Because of this, it’s become a major concern for many Christians. Often, when looking for a church, people will inquire about that church’s position on soteriology. Therefore, it may be helpful for us to clarify “up front” what Bethany Baptist Church believes on this topic.
Thirdly, I want to be careful not to vilify those who have a different opinion than me. If this is a quarrel, it’s a family quarrel. Both Calvinists and Arminians are our brothers and sisters in Christ. I recognize that many godly Christians disagree on this issue. Though I believe strongly about my position, I want to hold to it with a spirit of love and humility.
Cards on the table
For those not completely familiar with this debate, it may be helpful to briefly summarize the major views (click here for a good overview of the topic). Then I’ll “lay my cards on the table” and explain my position.
The first major position is Calvinism, named for French Reformer John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvinists are famous for their TULIP acronym which I believe fairly summarizes their beliefs.
Calvinists believe that man is dead in his tresspassess and sins and therefore unable to respond to God. By and large, they equate total depravity with total inability.
In eternity past, God chose certain individuals, apart from any foreseen merit or action on their part (including faith), to be saved. All others are left to their own sinfulness and will be lost forever.
It’s these elect individuals, and these only, that Christ died for. Though unlimited in its sufficiency, Christ’s atonement was limited in that it was intended only for some, not all.
At the point in time which God chooses, those who have been chosen to salvation will have their wills effectually changed by God so that they must choose to accept Christ as Savior.
Perseverance of the saints
Those who are decretally elect will persevere to the end and be saved.
The main rival to Calvinism is Arminianism, named for Dutch pastor Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). Arminians have a less famous acronym, FACTS. I will examine the Arminian acrostic in logical, rather than alphabetical order.
Arminians also believe in total depravity (actually, all orthodox Christians do) but they believe that the problem of man’s inability is solved by a prevenient (proceeding) grace that is given to all mankind through the Cross and enables each individual to choose or reject God’s offer of salvation.
Atonement for all
Arminians (along with many other Christians, including “four-point Calvinists”) believe that Christ died for all men, but that the benefits of His sacrifice are applied only to those who believe in Him.
Man’s will is freed by God’s grace, enabling him to respond to the offer of salvation.
A person’s election is conditioned on whether or not they accept Christ by faith.
Secure in Christ
A person is secure as long as they are trusting in Christ. Most Arminians believe that it’s possible for a person to stop being “in Christ” and thus lose their salvation.
So, what do we believe at Bethany? We’ve tried to strike a balance between the two major viewpoints. It’s not that our goal is to be balanced. Our goal is to be biblical. We just happen to believe that the Bible presents a position that is “balanced” in relation to Calvinism and Arminianism.
We don’t have a fancy acronym, but our view can be summarized this way: We believe that fallen man is totally depraved and unable in himself to come to God; that God in His love and sovereignty made His Image-bearers capable, through His Self-revelation, to freely and authentically respond to His offer of unmerited salvation so that those who freely receive the Gospel do so to His glory and those who freely reject the Gospel do so of themselves, so that the character and reputation of God is not impugned. Those who receive Christ by faith are the elect of God and are eternally secured by His power.
Some will insist that this is just a repackaging of moderate classical Arminianism. And perhaps they’re right. But that term carries so much baggage with it that we haven’t found it very helpful. A term often used in our church to describe our view is Mediate Theology. As far as I can tell, the term was coined by C. Gordon Olson in his book Beyond Calvinism and Arminianism: An Inductive Mediate Theology of Salvation, which was later abridged and republished as Getting the Gospel Right: A Balanced View of Salvation Truth.
It may surprise many (especially those of the Calvinist stripe) that the primary goal of our theology is the exaltation of God. We believe there’s a difference between giving God credit and giving God glory. Calvinists give God credit for everything even, in the most extreme (arguably, the most consistent) versions, credit for sin and suffering. But we believe that blaming God for the sins of His creatures and ascribing to Him arbitrary decrees does not bring glory to a holy, wise, loving God. We believe that God is glorified as we acknowledge and celebrate who He is. This means exalting both His grand sovereignty and His limitless love.
I want to look at how God is glorified by a Mediate view of salvation.
God’s glory in conditionality
You might be interested to know that I haven’t always held the Mediate position. I used to be a Calvinist. And what’s more, I was the hardcore kind of Calvinist you don’t want to meet in a dark alley. One of my chief concerns as a Calvinist was that God receive all the glory for my salvation. This is a good concern. I understand and appreciate that desire. However, it doesn’t follow that for God to be glorified by my salvation it must be accomplished apart from any authentic human decision. I used to believe that if man had an ounce of free will that was an ounce of sovereignty that God didn’t have. But I now believe that man’s free will is an extension of God’s sovereignty.
God is the Creator and Owner of the universe. A word we use to describe this concept is sovereignty. As the Sovereign of the universe God has the right to order His creation how He pleases. And it pleased Him to give His rational creatures free choice (Genesis 2:16-17, John 7:17, Peter 3:9). But this does not undermine His sovereignty. Is a king less sovereign because he commands his servants to clean the stables instead of doing it himself? Likewise, God is no less sovereign for decreeing that His image-bearers have a limited, but real, ability to make actual decisions with actual consequences.
This concept applies to many areas, but let’s just stick with salvation. As I see it, we have three options about how God foreknows and predestines our salvation.
Option #1: God predestines arbitrarily, apart from any foreknown human action
If God predestines apart from any foreknown actions, then on what basis does He determine that Tom is decreed to everlasting happiness and Dick is decreed to everlasting torment? It seems that the only answer is that He does so arbitrarily. Some Calvinists will reject that characterization. But it seems to me that we’re dealing with semantics. Isn’t “unconditional” just another word for “arbitrary”? If there’s really no conditions placed on something then all that’s left is random decision-making.
Some appeal to the “secret counsels of God”. But this is a phrase without meaning. Are you saying that God has reasons but just doesn’t reveal them? If so, those reasons would be the “conditions” by which He predestines certain people to salvation. And a secret condition is still a condition. Are you saying we just don’t know? That seems like a convenient cop-out to me. Likewise, it seems rather ridiculous to build an entire theological system on question marks.
Other Calvinists openly admit that their view leads to God being arbitrary. Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) is highly respected in New Calvinist circles and much of his theology has been reincarnated through the pervasive ministry of John Piper (b. 1946). In his famous (infamous?) sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, Edwards refers to God’s “arbitrary will” in the context of salvation at least four times.
The startling conclusion of Calvinism is that God Himself does not know why He decreed Tom to heaven and Dick to hell! Presenting God as arbitrary does not glorify Him and undermines the scriptural teaching on His wisdom and purposefulness (Isaiah 28:29, 1 Samuel 2:3, Romans 16:27).
Option #2: God predestines conditionally based on meritorious human action
I believe that the only alternative to God arbitrarily determining His image-bearers’ eternal destinies is for Him to make those decisions conditionally, based on the foreknown actions of men and angels. But what sort of actions are those? Are they the meritorious actions of basically good human beings earning their own salvation? The Scripture adamantly denies this possibility: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
We do not believe that man can earn his salvation in any way. Salvation is of the Lord and He deserves all the glory for a person’s salvation. Works and human effort are not enough to wash away our sins.
Option #3: God predestines conditionally based on unmeritorious human responses
We believe that to preserve the glory of His wisdom, our Lord cannot decree salvation apart from conditions sovereignly placed on men. We also believe that to preserve the glory of His grace, those conditions cannot be meritorious human works. Therefore, whatever reason God has for choosing certain people to go to heaven it has to be a human response (otherwise God would not be rational) that is not meritorious (otherwise God would not be Savior). The Bible gives just that sort of unmeritorious response: faith.
The New Testament is abundantly clear that we are saved through faith (Luke 7: 50, Romans 10:9, John 1:12, Mark 2:5, 3:15-16, Acts 16:31, Ephesians 2:8 just to name a few). It’s also abundantly clear that faith is not a work and therefore not meritorious. Speaking about Abraham, Paul said, “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Romans 4:5) Paul contrasts faith with works. Not only are they not the same thing, they’re polar opposites. The person who exercises faith “worketh not”. It’s this “anti-work”, unmeritorious faith that God counts for righteousness. It’s not that faith saves a person, but that God saves those who exercise faith. Faith is not the enemy of God’s glory in salvation. It’s what makes salvation a gracious act of God. “Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace.” (Romans 4:16)
We believe that the Mediate view – that God saves those who meet the rational condition of unmeritorious faith – best glorifies God.
Christ’s centrality in election
Election is a scriptural fact. It’s not a Calvinist term. It’s a biblical one! But how does an individual become a part of the “elect”? Let’s look at one of the key passages on election – Ephesians 1. The debate centers around verses four and five: “According as he hath chosen us in him [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love: Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to him, according to the good pleasure of his will.”
Let’s provide some context. In this passage, Paul is addressing a Christian community (Ephesians 1:1). A major theme of the book is what we have “in Christ”. After some initial salutations (1:1-2), Paul gets into the message of the chapter. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:” (1:3) What follows after verse three are the “spiritual blessings” that God has given us “in Christ”. Scofield gives the heading of “The believer’s position in grace” to this section and then breaks it down into the “elements of the believer’s position”. Paul is not talking about how a person got saved. He’s talking about what a believer has now that he is saved.
We could outline the passage this way:
- The spiritual blessings believers have in Christ:
- Being chosen (1:4)
- Being predestined to the adoption of sons (1:5)
- Acceptance (1:6)
- Redemption through His blood (1:7)
- Forgiveness of sins (1:7)
- Knowledge of the mystery (1:9)
- An inheritance (1:11)
- Sealed with the promise of the Spirit (1:13)
Nearly all commentators agree that the last six blessings are given to those who have put their faith in Jesus Christ. I believe that this also the case with the first two. The reason a person is chosen by God is because He is “in Christ”. A person is not chosen to be in Christ. A person is chosen because he is in Christ. How does a person become in Christ? Through faith in Him. Therefore, we are elect through our faith in Jesus.
When a person puts their faith in Christ they are positionally in Him. Everything Christ is, we are to a lesser degree. He is the only begotten Son of God. We are adopted sons of God. He is the Holy One of Israel. We are holy ones (saints). He is the King of king and the High Priest forever. We are kings and priests.
Likewise, Jesus is the Elect. Peter describes Him as the “chosen of God, and precious” (1 Peter 2:4) and again as “elect, precious: and he that believeth on Him shall not be confounded.” (2:6) Jesus the Elect of God. He is choice and precious to God. Therefore, we become elect by trusting the Elect. Don’t get so caught up in the theological debate that you miss the wonder of this reality. In Christ, wretched sinners can become choice and precious to a holy God! This is a marvelous, wonderful truth!
Moreover, it’s clear from the entirety of Scripture that election is conditional; conditioned on coming into the Elect Christ. James 2:5 says that “God hath chosen” those who are “rich in faith”. God chooses those who are rich in faith. There’s no scriptural evidence to suggest that God chooses who will be rich in faith. People have faith and on that basis they are chosen.
It should be noted the only reason men can have faith is because God has reached out to them. He is the one who enables us to have faith. He therefore deserves all the glory for our conversion. But this does not make faith any less a volitional, uncoerced act of the human will.
The Spirit’s work in security
Though we reject the Calvinist system of soteriology, we also reject the traditional Arminian belief that a true believer can lose their salvation. Our doctrinal statement says, “We believe that there is now no condemnation for those who have truly exercised saving faith; that the believer is eternally secured by the power of God. We do not believe that a true child of God can lose his or her salvation. We thus believe that all who have been born again of the Spirit can be assured of their salvation and eternal union with God in Christ. (John 5:24; 10:28; 13:1 14:16-17; 17:11; Romans 8:29; 1 Corinthians 6:19; Hebrews 7:25; 1 John 2:1-2; 5:13; Jude 24)” Both Calvinists and Arminians will argue that this is a contradiction. How can we hold to both conditional election and unconditional security? I had a Calvinist tell me once that if a person could freely accept Christ than he could also freely leave Christ.
But there is no contradiction here. Our belief in eternal security is not inconsistent with the Mediate view of free will. We believe that God gave men the ability to make real choices with real consequences. Some of those consequences are irreversible. When Adam rebelled against God, there were deep consequences he couldn’t take back. He couldn’t put the fruit back on the tree. It would be silly to suggest that because Adam freely fell (as many Calvinist believe) he could freely “un-fall”. When he fell his nature changed in such a way that prevented him from reversing the fall. Likewise, just because a person freely accepts Christ by faith it doesn’t follow that he has the ability to freely unaccept Christ.
You see, being saved isn’t like joining a club where you’re free to rescind your membership at any time. When you receive God’s offer of salvation, you are opening yourself up to a radical transformation. The Spirit does a miraculous and everlasting work in the believer’s heart that forever alters his desires, priorities, and actions. At salvation, a believer’s nature is changed in such a way that prevents him from becoming unsaved. This act of the Spirit is one of the works of God that keeps a believer eternally secured.
Glorifying the Rescuer
Apologist Alister McGrath said that an important question to ask of someone else’s opinion is, “[W]hy would anyone want to believe this? What is it that makes this view attractive?” Many non-Calvinists are baffled by the surging popularity of Calvinism, especially amongst Christians in my age category. “Why,” they wonder. “Are so many young people embracing such an abrasive system?”
As a former Calvinist I can understand some of the “draws” that Calvinism has. There are several. But perhaps the biggest is the desire to make sure God receives His full due. This is a good and praiseworthy desire. But often times it’s misdirected. God is not so small as to be threatened by authentic, casual human will.
Imagine with me, a man drowning in the ocean. He’s miles from shore, his strength is gone, and his body is failing. Within minutes death will overtake him. But out of nowhere, a boat appears. A rescuer reaches out his hand and pulls the helpless man into the boat. The next day, a headline reads, MAN HEROICALLY SAVES HIMSELF FROM DROWNING BY VALIANT DECISION TO NOT RESIST RESCUER. That would be ridiculous. All the credit would go to the rescuer. I believe that is exactly how salvation works. God does the saving – all of it! But He saves those who do not resist His offer.
The Pelagian view is that the dying man isn’t so sick after all. He jumps into the boat of his own accord, without any prompting from the rescuer. The Calvinist view is that the man is actually a corpse, unable to decide to not resist the rescue. This seems to give God more glory, except for one thing. There are other bodies in the water; souls who could have just as easily been rescued. But the rescuer arbitrarily decides to leave most of the people to suffer and die, while randomly selecting a few to be saved. I believe both these views rob God of glory.
At Bethany, we want to exalt God for all that He is. We want to worship Him for His love and kindness as well as His grace and sovereignty. In short, we center our ministry and outreach on glorifying the Rescuer while actively getting into the cold water ourselves to participate in the mission He’s given us.
“Soteriology” is the doctrine of salvation.
Properly defined, total depravity is the belief that man in his totality is depraved. In other words, every part of him – mind, emotions, will – is corrupted and oppressed by sin. This is different from utter depravity, the idea that man is as bad as he could possibly be.
Originally, I titled this post “Biblical soteriology” but that seems unfair to both Calvinists and Arminians who would also claim to have a biblical soteriology.
I understand that Calvinists do not actually believe that God is the author of sin and yet this seems the inescapable conclusion of their theology. Appeals to “mystery” and “paradox” undermine the rationality, sincerity, and Self-revelation of God.
C.I. Scofield, The Scofield Reference Bible
See Tim Chaffey, “Can People Really Seek God: Examining a Commonly Misused Bible Verse” (Midwest Apologetics); http://midwestapologetics.org/blog/?p=1727
Constitution of Bethany Baptist Church, article III, section VI, paragraph III
For a full treatment on the Mediate view of security see C. Gordon Olson, Getting the Gospel Right (Cedar Knolls, NJ; Global Gospel Publishers, 2005) p. 151-201
Alister McGrath, “Challenges from Atheism”, in Ravi Zacharias (ed.), Beyond Opinion (Nashville, TN; Thomas Nelson, 2007) p. 21
Pelagianism is a heresy named for the British monk Pelagius (360-420) who taught that man was basically good and could seek God without divine initiation.