A supposedly difficult problem exists that has polarised different Christian traditions and undermined unity in the interests of defending a particular viewpoint. The question is: “Are we so corrupted by sin as to be unable to freely responding to God’s offer of salvation, so that God will need to choose who goes to Heaven?” A very simple resolution follows and allows us to finally extinguish the smouldering flame of this debate which has needlessly divided Christians for centuries.
Calvinists uphold this idea of selective salvation, appealing to the sixteenth century writings of John Calvin for support. Their views are typical of Reformed and Presbyterian churches, whereas opponents from Anglican, Methodist and Pentecostal traditions are labelled Arminians, after Jacobus Arminius who was already challenging such views within a generation of their emergence. Baptists have churches within both streams and Catholicism naturally does not fit easily with either. The so-called five points of Calvinism, which give the acronym TULIP, are as follows:
- Total Depravity – we are so corrupted by sin as to be unable to initiate a response for salvation;
- Unconditional Election – God sovereignly predestines only some for Heaven but without any merit on their part;
- Limited Atonement – the sacrifice of the Cross was effective only for those chosen by God;
- Irresistible Grace – those who God chooses will inevitably respond to His call and receive salvation; and
- Perseverance of the Saints – those who truly become Christians cannot lose their salvation.
On the other hand, there are three distinct and important truths that lie at the heart of a balanced understanding of salvation that upholds the best elements of these teachings while guarding against excess.
1. The Bible teaches that salvation is universally offered
Suggesting that all who call on the name of the Lord are saved (Romans 10:13) somehow means only those who are chosen does force an interpretation not supported elsewhere in the Bible. God is not only willing that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9) but has shown His grace for salvation to all people (Titus 2:11). Of course, not everyone responds, so not everyone is saved. The idea that God stands at the beginning of the timeline of history and determines who goes to Heaven or Hell misunderstands that He is eternal and sees all of history at once! This is important, but it really just makes the issue quite straightforward. Romans 8:29 affirms predestination, but simply grounds it in God’s omniscient foreknowledge. He sees all at once the choices of people throughout history by which they are either cooperating with, or rejecting, His offer of salvation so as to seal their own eternal destiny.
2. The Bible teaches that free will is an essential component to salvation
The idea that we are dead in our trespasses until made alive by Christ (Ephesians 2:5) simply acknowledges that we do not save ourselves. God chooses us first and must make the first move to awaken us to even be able to respond to Him with a choice of our own. The sovereignty of God is still supreme. This sovereignty, though, has resulted in Him enacting a plan of redemption that is potentially available for all, but accepted only by some. After all, would a person’s love for God be true love if they were not freely able to resist Him? The Bible is replete with examples of the freedom to choose God and the need to do so (e.g. in Acts 2:41; 8:12-14; 13:46; 22:18, in John 1:12-13’s need for a choice before becoming God’s children, and in Revelation 3:20’s need to ‘open the door’ of our hearts). These require God to awaken us with revelation first, but where we respond through an act of our will. Free will also makes sense of going “into all the world to make disciples”, as Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:18-20); the absence of anyone’s free choice would remove the motivation to share faith, even if not removing the need.
3. The Bible teaches that salvation can be lost
Once saved always saved? The Bible teaches otherwise. Jesus might seem to promise that His children cannot be plucked from His hand, however the same passage makes this conditional on the sort of relationship by which we know His voice and follow Him (John 10:27-29). Security, therefore, is found in Him, but only as we commit to relationship. This involves our choice and is in keeping with the rest of Scripture. After all, Jesus says that any failure to remain in Him results in people being cast out and burned by fire (John 15:6), a clear reference to losing salvation. This possibility is reinforced in Hebrews 6:4-6 and thereby promotes a healthy and respectful fear of God. The fact that people can and do drift from faith cannot be passed off by saying they were never really Christians in the first place which makes a mockery of the facts of real lives and real choices that real people really make!
Responsibly seeking the whole counsel of Scripture can still affirm God’s sovereignty and His choice of people to follow Him. It is, however, in the sense that He calls everyone to faith, but also knows who will and will not respond. Bible writers typically and rightly attribute human choices to God, but they are still the choices made by people. We are not robotically programmed and we do not remain so either. We can have a relationship with God who reveals Himself to us and wants to sustain us, but where we need to respond in order to receive eternal life. This requires a free choice which is at the heart of sacrificial and unconditional love in any relationship.
In the end, the moderately-expressed elements of Calvinism and Arminianism can be viewed as two sides of the same coin, where overemphasis of either potentially leads to denominational pride and theological pitfalls. Humility hopefully sees the same verses in the same Bible read by all Christians with enduring respect for the sovereignty of God and also for a personal commitment to obeying His truth and serving His mission.