The question of predestination or free will is one we all struggle with (sometimes without even realizing it!). Some passages of Scripture seem to indicate God predestines us to be His. Other passages give the impression that our salvation ultimately comes down to our free choice to accept Jesus’ offer of new life. Which is it? Or is it somehow both?
In my last year of study at Talbot School of Theology, I was really wrestling with this question. In the spring term I had several classes that, together, provided a new way to think about this issue, and helped me see a way forward. In this series I will share what I discovered.
First it is important to clarify what the terms predestination and free will mean. Only then can we enter into this discussion. I will do my best to define all terms adequately, even if I don’t agree with the positions they represent.
I must add that I know my definitions will not be comprehensive. Innumerable pages have been written to further define, illustrate, and nuance each term. Therefore, my definitions will most certainly fail to say all that can be said. Yet my hope is that my definitions will be both accurate and adequate to use in this discussion. If you feel I have not provided an accurate definition of any of the terms I use, please let me know!
The first term to define well is predestination. This term is used in several passages of Scripture:
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30)
[H]e predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will…In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will. (Ephesians 1:5, 11)
How are we to understand this? Many have wrestled with this question, and two answers have emerged. One answer was framed by John Calvin, the other by Jacobus Arminius. It is important first to be clear on these different understandings of what is meant by “predestined.”
Predestination According to Calvinism
John Calvin (1509-1564) was a Protestant Reformer who wrote a great deal about how we should understand biblical teaching on a variety of issues, including our salvation. After his death (and in response to the writings of Arminius, see below), Calvin’s views on salvation were organized into five themes. Each begins with a letter forming the acrostic TULIP. In this context, the Calvinist definition of predestination is clarified and related to other important themes in the Calvinist understanding of our salvation:
Total Depravity: We are all dead in our sin and transgressions, without merit and without hope before the one true, holy, and righteous God. Due to this, each and all of us deserve the penalty of sin–eternal separation from God and all that is good. Depravity is extensive (affecting every dimension of our being–intellect, emotions, and will). It is also intensive (affecting these dimensions so fully that a person is not able to understand any truths about God, have any desire to know God, or choose to believe in God until God regenerates the person).
Unconditional Election: God, eager to show his great mercy, elects some to be redeemed and not pay the penalty of their sin, but instead come back into fellowship with him. This election is in no way conditioned by anything in the character, choices, or actions of persons, but completely determined by God’s choice alone. He predestines those he elects to be saved.
Limited Atonement: Christ’s death on the cross–which atoned for sins–is applied only to the elect. Christ’s atoning work on the cross was not “wasted” on those God had not predestined and, therefore, would not benefit from this great sacrifice. (This is where the axiom “Christ’s death was sufficient for all but only efficient for some” is often used.)
Irresistible Grace: God bestows his grace on those he has predestined and atoned for by drawing them to himself and his salvation. As his plans cannot be thwarted, his grace is irresistible, and those he draws necessarily come to faith in Christ, and his atoning work covers the penalty of their sin.
Perseverance of the Saints: Once God draws and redeems those he predestines to be saved, he or she will persevere in the faith until the final day of redemption, evidencing the fruit of Spirit as a result. One’s salvation is secure and cannot be negated, due to God’s choice to elect and work to accomplish and maintain this redemption of his elect.
As is clear from this brief survey, predestination (as defined in “Unconditional Election” above) fits within a broader context. We are unable to do anything related to our salvation (including considering the claims of Christ, desiring to know God or beginning to seek him). Therefore God must predestine some to be saved, or else none will be. Those he predestines Christ’s death is effective to save from sin’s penalty, and thus God irresistibly draws them to himself and keeps them for all eternity.
These five points define what has come to be called “Five-Point Calvinism.” Yet not all who identify as Calvinists accept Limited Atonement. Therefore, they are referred to as “Four Point Calvinists.” When I refer to Calvinism in this series I am referring to either variant.
Churches embracing this point of view are often referred to as “Reformed” churches and include theologically conservative Presbyterian churches (such denominations as the Presbyterian Church of America, Evangelical Presbyterian Church, and Orthodox Presbyterian Church), Dutch Reformed Denominations (such as the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church of America) and Reformed Baptists.
Predestination According to Arminianism
Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) was a Dutch theologian who took issue with Calvin’s understanding of salvation. His writings were summarized by followers after his death. These followers were known as the “Remonstrants,” (a remonstrance is a formal objection to someone or something). They drafted five points of disagreement, known as the “Five Articles of Remonstrance”):
Total Depravity: Each person is spiritually dead and unable to do anything to please God or earn salvation. Depravity is understood only to be extensive (affecting every dimension of our being–intellect, emotions, and will). Differing from Calvinism, it is not understood to also be intensive. Those not yet redeemed are still able to understand some truths about God, have some desire to know God, and have some ability to choose to respond to God’s invitation to know him.
Conditional Election: God elects and predestines those who freely choose to place their faith in Christ (which he knows from eternity past). Therefore, the believer’s election is conditional–based on whether one meets the condition of trusting Christ as his or her personal Savior. Predestination is based on God’s foreknowledge of the person’s decision to trust Christ as savior.
Unlimited Atonement: Christ died for all, rather than only for the elect. However, the application of this atonement is dependent on faith in Christ. In other words, atonement being for everyone does not mean everyone automatically enjoys the benefits of Christ’s work on the cross. One must believe in Christ before he or she will enjoy the benefits of the atonement (salvation).
Prevenient Grace: God’s grace goes to all, as the Holy Spirit seeks to draw all to place their faith in Christ and be saved. This grace “goes before” or “proceeds” salvation. However, it is resistible–each person has the ability to resist this “wooing” of the Holy Spirit, not place faith in Christ, and thus remain alienated from God.
Conditional Preservation of the Saints: Once a person’s sins are paid for and he or she is a child of God, perseverance in this state is conditional upon the person remaining faithful to Christ. Since one freely chose to follow Christ, it is also possible one can later freely choose to no longer follow Christ, and thus lose one’s salvation.
So Arminianism also believes we are predestined. The critical difference is that, on the Arminian view, we are predestined based on God’s knowing beforehand (his “foreknowledge”) that we will freely choose to follow Christ (see “Conditional Election” above).
Here, too, the Arminian understanding of predestination fits within the broader context. Since the effect of the fall was “total” only extensively, and not intensively, each person still has some ability to consider the claims of Christ, desire to know God and begin to seek him. Therefore, via God’s Prevenient grace He is able to woo some to follow Him. In God’s omniscience He knows who will respond by placing their faith in Christ, and based on this foreknowledge he predestines them. Christ’s atonement is efficacious for all who trust Christ. Alas, some who choose Christ may later choose again to reject Him and lose the gift of eternal life.
As is the case with Calvinism, it is important to note that not all Arminians accept all five of these positions. Some do not accept the final point--Conditional Perseverance of the Saints. Some Arminians argue that the decision to accept Christ, similar to the decision to jump off a building, while free, isn’t a decision that can be reversed. So these folks may be referred to as “Four-Point Arminians.” What I say in this series will apply to either variant.
Churches embracing the Arminian view of salvation generally include Wesleyan groups (including theologically conservative Methodist churches, Nazarene churches, Holiness churches, Pentecostal and Charismatic churches), Adventist groups, Baptists (other than Reformed Baptists), and many Bible and Independent churches.
Two important notes are in order. Arminians are often misunderstood. So no matter whether one agrees or disagrees with that view, we must be careful to avoid the Straw Man fallacy. I’ve seen this done in two ways quite regularly.
First, since Arminius first began writing, some have accused him of the heresy of Pelagianism (basically the view that one can earn salvation through one’s own efforts). Many careful readers of Arminius, whether agreeing with his views or not, conclude his theology was not Pelagian.
However, even if so, the formulation of Arminian theology espoused today comes primarily via the writings of John Wesley (sometimes referred to as “Wesleyan Arminianism”), which is clearly not Pelagian.
Second, an often-heard distinction between Calvinism and Arminianism is related to God’s sovereignty. Calvinism, it is said, has a higher view of, or believes more in sovereignty than Arminianism. This is a misnomer. Both views have a high view of God’s sovereignty, but disagree as to how God expresses it. Calvinists see its expression through God’s unconditional election and redemption of the elect. Arminians see its expression through God achieving his purposes while at the same time permitting persons to choose or not choose to follow Him.
Both Calvinism and Arminianism takes seriously the biblical teaching that we are predestined. Yet they differ on what is meant by predestined—it is conditional or unconditional? This is one issue to be resolved.
The second issue is similar: how are we to understand free will? As you may have guessed, Calvinists and Arminians define this term differently as well. Next week I’ll discuss both of their definitions of free will.
Until then, grace and peace.